Saturday, July 28, 2012


Sam's Reviews of the Big Summer Movies


It’s almost impossible to do a short review for this movie, considering the enormous controversy that erupted after its release. It may be one of the most vehemently reviled films of the 21st century, especially amongst those who consider themselves fans of Ridley Scott. While I don’t think the film is in the same league as Alien, Blade Runner, or Gladiator, I certainly don’t think it deserved the tsunami of bile that flooded the blogosphere. It had some defenders and I count myself among them, though I do have some reservations.

With Scott at the helm, you expect it to be visually stunning, and it is.  It also has great performances by Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron. It features a couple of terrific set pieces, the standout being Rapace’s encounter with the surgery pod. The pace of the movie is good overall, though a touch slower than a modern audience might prefer. The movie grapples with some grand issues, which it fails to answer of course, since not even Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof know the answers. However, I think they offered some interesting thoughts on the matter.

Sadly, there are certainly some weak spots. The firefight against the transformed geologist Fifield is flat and feels tacked on, perhaps to appease action-grubbing producers. Logan Marshall-Green is tepid as archaeologist Charlie, whose motivations are muddy, especially his seeming disgust for the android, David. There are also some definite information gaps in how the “black slime” functions, and its true purpose. There are clues, and I think you can figure out a lot by engaging your brain a little, but Scott might have avoided much of the controversy if he’d been a little more explicit in this area.

Similarly, the behavior of the “Engineers” is needlessly abstruse. Had Scott taken a moment to explore a conversation between David and the surviving Engineer before he rips the android’s head off, he could have given us some much needed insight into their motivations. A lot can be gleaned from context, but the film would have benefitted greatly from a little ‘here’s how you humans screwed up’ info from the albino giant. There are other pros and cons, but I’m running out of room. I may do a dissertation on this at a later date, once the general fury wanes.

Unfortunately, I think it would be nearly impossible for this film, even without its problems, to live up to the titanic expectations many had for it. Sadly, we seem to live in an age where nothing is mediocre, or just pretty good. In the internet age it seems everything must be either utter genius or irredeemable sewage. You must love it or hate it, and no middle road is acceptable. Well, I take the middle road here. I liked it, in spite of its problems.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Moonrise Kingdom

The latest offering from oddball film director Wes Anderson is a delightful little fable. An exceptional ensemble of great actors, including Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, craft captivating characters in the service of a satisfyingly off-kilter story of young love, old love and weird love.

Preteen pen-pals Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop abscond together one sultry summer on a camping adventure. While the small island mobilizes to find the runaway kids, the fleeing pair hike, camp and fall in love.

The film is a little lighter in tone than some of Anderson’s earlier works, like The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, but not so much as to leave out the headier issues completely. If the film does something exceptionally well, it is to create a palpable sense of time and place. Having experienced the 60’s myself, as a child, I can tell you this rings true. I grew up in rural southwestern Ontario, and the atmosphere was very much like that presented here for 1965 New England. Those from later generations may not fully appreciate this, but for me it was a warm, nostalgic visit to a nearly forgotten time and place.

The whole thing is funny, sad and clever, and never too preachy or self-aware.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


I am a big fan of many Pixar films, including the best superhero movie ever made, The Incredibles. They’ve had a few missteps here and there, creatively speaking, but I’d say they were quality failures. Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to put Brave in the ‘near miss’ category.

Visually, the film is amazing. Pixar rewrote their software for this and it looks great. Beautifully rendered characters with marvelous hair inhabit the lush, colorful landscapes of a magical, mythical Scotland that should have been. The character design is spectacular, with one exception, which I’ll get to later.

The story starts out strong. Tomboy princess Merida has no interest in marrying to fulfill the expectations of her mother the Queen or those of the united clans of the region. At an archery contest for her betrothal, she shoots for her own hand in marriage and wins handily.

Up to there, it’s awesome.

Sadly, the whole thing falls apart after Merida finds a weird woodcarving witch in the woods. She asks the witch to change her destiny and inadvertently transforms her mother into a bear. What the--? What? A freakin’ bear?

Yeah, that’s right, a bear.

It just seemed so… I dunno… arbitrary. It was like they tossed a dart at an illustration of the tree of life and hit the bear. While post-movie research reveals there are, in fact, bears in Scotland, there’s nothing inherently Scottish about bears. Why not transform mom into some creature from Scottish lore? Or better yet, why not find a real-world danger that can bring mother and daughter together?

The film tries valiantly after that, but as much as I liked it visually, they never really got me back.

I didn’t like the choice of ‘bear’, and there was another problem too. The design of the bear also didn’t work. One of the things I’ve always loved about Pixar is that they don’t try to make their human characters look like real humans. They are cartooned and simplified first, and rendered second, and this is why the animation works. They can push and pull these cartoony designs further and achieve stronger poses. It’s more like classical line animation in that way.

The design of the Queen bear looks… well, it looks like a frickin’ bear. A real bear. Therefore, all the intended comedy moments of the bear acting like a refined lady of the court fall flat. The exaggerated poses and expressions don’t jive with the fact we’re looking at a completely believable bear. I believe a cartoonier design would have worked 1000% better.

The other thing is that Pixar has never used magic in their films before. Even in Toy Story, there is no magical reason why the toys are alive, they just are. It may have been fanciful for a man to fly his house around using a thousand helium balloons, but it wasn’t magical. Even The Incredibles weren’t really magical, they were just born in a world where some folks have super powers. Disney, however, has always used magic in their films, and it feels like the cross pollination between the companies curdled the milk here.

Also, the original geniuses of the Pixar approach, guys like Lasseter, Bird and Stanton, have moved on from the company. Consequently, I fear the golden age of Pixar may be on the wane.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Before getting to some of the comic book based movies of the summer. Get a load of this:

Sam’s Rules for Making a Good Superhero Movie

Here is the lost answer to the ancient riddle of what Sam looks for in a superhero movie. It’s all very simple, really.

1) Get the origin right: (I’m looking at you, Batman Begins!) Hey, I understand, sometimes you need to tweak things a bit to make them more palatable for modern audiences. Okay, fine. But you don’t make Ras Al Ghul Batman’s mentor, you don’t make Galactus a giant space-cloud, and you don’t make Bruce Banner’s dad a mutant. Sure, surviving a Gamma bomb blast is a tad fanciful, so I’m willing to give you some wiggle room if you keep true to the spirit of the character. But damn kids, if you stray too far from the source material, it’s no longer the Hulk, is it?

2) Get the characterization right: (I’m looking at you, Batman Begins!) I’m not interested in a Bruce Wayne who decides to go and shoot Joe Chill. The murder of his parents by gunfire sends him in the opposite direction. He chooses never to use a gun. This is perfectly workable. Why change it? Don’t change it!

3) Give good action: Comics are all about the action and your movie should be too. Here, Batman Begins gets it right. The action, especially in Gotham, is everything you want it to be. Batman is stealthy, creepy and scary. The fights are well choreographed, convincing and beautifully shot. Unlike the action in say, Daredevil, which is muddy and flat. Don’t go all “music video” with it either, like Catwoman… Yick...

4) Don’t reveal their secret identity to everyfuckingbody: Seriously, what is up with this? You keep your true identity secret to spare your loved ones violent reprisal. If you reveal who you are, you endanger them, and you are an asshole, not a hero. This is superhero 101 people, get it right. And, PS, no one else should reveal it either. Especially don’t have Alfred let a chick into the freakin’ Batcave, breaking rules #2 and #4.

5) Don’t tie everyone together in a giant coincidental convergence: I can only assume this is some kind of screenwriters disease. When adapting an existing property they want everyone linked. Dr. Doom has to be formed in the same cosmic event as the FF, Ras Al Ghul has to be Batman’s mentor. When writing original movies, writers are perfectly capable of having characters who have no history at all come into conflict. But, in comic book movies, it seems that everybody simply must be bound together in some sort of inescapable “orgy of fate”. Don’t do it!

6) Keep the plot simple, but solid: This ain’t rocket surgery. Just tell a nice, tight story. Keep it clear, straightforward and exciting. You don’t need to tart it up with a half a dozen plot twists and shocking reveals.

7) Tone is key. (Don’t be campy, don’t be pretentious, don’t be boring): I’m looking at you, Green Hornet. Look, campy CAN be done successfully, but only if you have absolute respect for the property. I think filmmakers often choose the campy approach because they think the property is stupid. Hey, if you don’t like it, why would we like your goofball version of it? Or maybe they think retooling something sincere as a comedy is easier than trying to get the tone right. It isn’t. Comedy is fucking hard. Good comedies are practically extinct. Try matching the tone of the original material and you are out in front immediately.

Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy!

Now no one has any excuse for making a bad superhero movie ever again.

Now back to your regularly scheduled reviews.


Just excellent! It successfully adheres to all my guidelines for a good superhero movie. The characters are right, the action is great, and the story is simple and solid. The long buildup started by Marvel Productions with movies like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and others, pays off handsomely in the capable hands of Joss Whedon. He simply nails it. Second only to the first Iron Man film in quality, this Marvel movie is expertly handled entertainment.

It was so refreshing to hear Bruce Banner and Tony Stark conversing like genius scientists, and it was marvelous to see Black Widow develop into a complex, clever and formidable character. The traditional Marvel “heroes fighting heroes” scene is handled perfectly, and doesn’t balloon into something unwieldy.

Some pathos is effectively achieved in a touching moment when the much beloved Agent Coulson dies and his sacrifice brings the team together. (I’m still betting that was a Coulson Life Model Decoy, but only time will tell.) The climactic alien invasion sequence is beautifully handled, giving each character in the ensemble their moments without seeming contrived. The destruction of New York is surprisingly accurate and believable.

This thing is really great, a popcorn crunching triumph. Action packed, funny, beautifully paced and perfectly acted. A really fun time at the movies.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Unfortunately, I found this film very uneven. It breaks a lot of my Superhero rules. For instance, they change the origin story by creating a science backstory for Peter’s dad and pointlessly changing the death of Uncle Ben into a sudden shooting during a convenience story robbery. Ben’s death has no dramatic impact whatsoever, and is completely wasted. Since this is known territory, it feels like they skimmed over it quickly, and that is much to the detriment of our ability to relate to Peter’s pain.

In further contravention of my rules, # 5 to be precise, they conveniently tie Peter’s parents to Dr. Connors, link Gwen Stacy to Dr. Connors, and have the radioactive spider come from Oscorp where Connors works. Peter even brings Connors the formula that turns him into the Lizard. Jesus! Too much coincidence there, guys!

And Spidey reveals his secret identity to bloody everyone!


They do get Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy right. The couple is effortlessly charming and the dialogue isn’t too predictable. At dinner with the Stacy’s, Peter and Captain Stacy have a terrific little debate about vigilantism that is pitch perfect. Unfortunately, the characterization of Spidey is… off, somehow. His wisecracks seem mean spirited and abrasive, not light-hearted and fun, something which Tobey Maguire always pulled off perfectly. And Spidey, in his search for his uncle Ben’s killer, seems more obsessed than troubled, which feels too dark for Spider-Man.

I had a few other issues, like having the Lizard infect some cops with the lizard formula, but then never using them. Guys, if you can’t afford to have an army of lizardmen attacking the city, don’t bother transforming them in the first place.

The acting is great across the board, except Garfield’s quip delivery, and the action is fantastic. I like that Garfield wears an actual suit, and his poses, both digital and practical, had the spidery feel I’d hoped for.

But, sadly, it all left me rather ambivalent by the end.

Rating: 2 out of 5

The Dark Knight Rises

Oh, Christopher Nolan, you are so good and so bad at the very same time.

Heavy sigh…

Since I don’t feel I can discuss this flick without at least touching on its two predecessors, I’m not sure this will qualify as a capsule review, but it simply can’t be helped.

To begin with, as you might have gleaned by my Rules for Making a Good Superhero Movie, I was not a fan of Batman Begins. There are some terrific sequences, certainly, but it contravened far too many of my rules for me to give it a passing grade. Christopher Nolan got the origin so terribly wrong I almost didn’t go see The Dark Knight, and that would have been a shame since it is the best of the three films. 

No, Chris, Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows did NOT train Batman. This breaks both rule #1 and rule #5. No, Chris, (as further discussed in the rules), Bruce Wayne would never take a gun and go out to shoot Joe Chill. Nor would he hang around miserably debating the moral implications of doing so. He would know it's wrong. These items contravene rule #2. He would, instead, steel himself and travel the planet learning martial arts and detection from the greatest masters in the world. That kind of obsessed determination and dogged discipline is SO much more interesting that your version, with the brainwashing and the mind altering drugs and all. (Drugs that, in another dumb tie-in coincidence, later pose a threat to Gotham.)

It’s not Batman, Chris. It just isn’t.

Once Bruce gets back to Gotham and puts on the suit, the movie improves a great deal. The scenes where Batman schmoozes Gordon and battles the gangster Falcone all work very well. This is what Bats should be doing, battling criminals in the dark and scaring the shit out of them. The scenes with Scarecrow also work pretty well. But then, of course, Batman also reveals his secret identity to Rachel Dawes, contravening rule #4.

The film also comes very close to contravening rule #6. The poisoning of Gotham’s water supply and the elevated train climax is just barely within the level of threat Bats should be fighting.

The Dark Knight works considerably better. Since the dumbass origin isn’t recapped, I can pretend this is actually Batman. Heath Ledger gives an inspired performance as The Joker. Nolan re-imagines the character slightly, but within reasonable boundaries, and dodges a bullet by leaving out the Joker’s origin story altogether, (thus saving himself from contravening rule #1). Most of the action is kept to the creepy streets, and it all works pretty damn well, overall.

Unfortunately, there is a severe pacing issue at the end, where Nolan feels the need to tack on a 40 minute “bonus movie”. The whole “ferry conundrum” is too long, and it’s heavy-handed from a thematic viewpoint. Also, creating, corrupting and killing Two-Face in less than an hour is both contrived and a terrible waste of a perfectly good villain.

Still, I’d give the movie a solid 3.5 out of 5 on the entertainment scale.

Now The Dark Knight Rises.

Again, there is just far too much bullshit co-incidence here. In the comics, Bane never had anything to do with Ra’s Al Ghul, Talia or the League of Shadows. Bane was a villain in his own right, with his own motivations. I mean if you’re going to use the character, shouldn’t you at least give him his due? This all taints his origin, which they get partly right but mostly wrong.

Now, I can see where you might not want to have Bane wearing a Mexican wrestling mask like in the comics, but why this bizarre techno-appliance which A) Restricts the actor’s ability to emote, and his general intelligibility, B) Is too wheezily reminiscent of Darth Vader, and, C) Looks like nothing so much as a hardware version of a Predator face? Bad, bad choice, Chris.

Bane’s motivations are weak and unclear, and ultimately come down to him being Talia’s protector and slave. Also, there is no real justification for why Bane is so much more badass than Batman. In the comics Bane is addicted to the drug Venom, which greatly enhances his strength and speed. Here he is taller than Batman, and he’s a certainly bulkier, but there’s no explanation for his seeming immunity to pain and his ability to toss Bats around like a rag doll. Without Venom to enhance his abilities it all seems too convenient. (Oh, there’s some lame justification that Bruce is all injured, old and beat up, but seriously, that’s Bruce. Once he puts on the suit he must be formidable, no matter what. Make Bruce weak and human if you must, but Batman must be badass.)

Sadly, the problems don’t end there.

We return to Gotham to find that Batman is reviled and Harvey Dent is deified, and Bruce Wayne has given up the cowl to become a recluse. What? Batman has given up the cowl? Sorry, Chris, but no. This is a man obsessed. In the comics Bruce might give it all up for a story arc a few issues in length, but for eight freakin’ years?

No… no way.

The only balm for his damaged psyche is putting on the suit and whomping bad guys. This is the character, man. No way he gives it up for eight years.

The film also breaks rule #6. It breaks it to bits. This is all waaaayyy too complicated. There are so many story elements, historical flashbacks and twisty surprises here that the whole deal becomes overwhelming and tiresome. Chris, much better filmmakers than you have failed to keep this many balls in the air. To quote the recycling hippie from The Simpsons; “Simplify, maaaaan.

Toss in another tacked-on “bonus movie” of Batman recovering in Bane’s former prison and this film also has some serious pacing issues.

There are some other nits I could pick, but I’ll leave it there for the sake of my (already compromised) brevity.

On the up side, Nolan does have a flair for dramatic action. When there’s a fight on, it always works beautifully. The acting, too, is generally very good. Bale thankfully tones down the raspy voice, which he overdid in The Dark Knight, (probably in an effort to keep up with Heath Ledger). Though I had severe reservations about Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, she manages to come very close to pulling it off. All the elements of the character are visible, if delivered in a somewhat overly studied fashion. And, the character is thankfully taken back to her thieving roots. Hathaway falls a yard or two short of the mark here, but does much better than I expected for a rom-com ingĂ©nue. Caine, Oldman, Gordon-Levitt, Freeman and Cotilliard are all predictably solid.

The reveal of Talia works pretty well. Her betrayal of Bruce’s budding love for her, and his hopes for a better life, are all nicely squashed by her treachery. (Having her actually stick a knife in him was a touch on the nose, but what the hell.)

Unfortunately, all things considered, I have to give this a failing grade. It’s too big, too complex. It all begins to collapse under its own weight. As I said before, the Batman character works best when he’s going up against thugs, mobsters and the occasional psychotic nut job. You need to keep him on the dark, gritty streets of the city, scaring the shit out of punks.

Anarcho-terrorism, invasion, subjugation, nuclear bombs?

This is a job for Superman.

Rating: (Movie) 1.5 out of 5 (Action) 4.5 out of 5

Safety Not Guaranteed

This low budget romance with sci-fi touches is a real hidden gem. It has little in the way of production values, but more than makes up for it with wit, cleverness and some sincere performances.

Would-be reporter, Darius Britt, wonderfully played by Aubrey Plaza, is a deeply cynical young lady willing to do anything to get ahead. She and her boss, Jeff, investigate a strange want ad, which reads:

"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."

After travelling to Ocean View, Washington, Darius's boss buggers off to reconnect with a high school sweetheart and leaves her to get the story. She nominates herself as a potential time-travel companion to the mysterious Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass. He accepts her on a trial basis, and begins to train her, body and mind, for the journey, while she makes notes and prepares to skewer him in print. However, as Darius goes through her extensive, and hilarious, ninja training with Kenneth, she begins to fall in love with him instead.

The film is always amusing, and often downright hysterical. Great supporting performances from New Girl’s Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni round out the ensemble as the film builds to its intriguing climax.

This is well worth checking out if you are in the mood for a fun break from the endless explosions of the summer blockbusters.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Snow White and the Huntsman

Another near miss, I’m sad to say. I was really looking forward to this one, but problems of tone and pacing, and some acting missteps sink the boat.

Charlize Theron makes a game stab at the role of the evil queen, Ravenna, but only gets halfway there. While her depiction of the cold, calculating, succubus queen is exceptional when the character is in control, there are several moments where Ravenna becomes petulant and paranoid. These moments undermine the scariness of the character, and Theron is unable to make them convincing. (Possibly because she senses the tone is all wrong, but that would be conjecture on my part.)

Kristen Stewart is adequate as deposed princess Snow White, but the best performances come from Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, and Sam Spruell as the queen’s loyal, but much abused, brother.

The visual design of the film is inspired and there are a few serviceable battle sequences, including a nice fight with an ogre, but it’s all in support of a clunky, plodding narrative. The Queen needs to consume Snow White’s heart to achieve mortality, Snow hooks up with the huntsman, they join forces with the seven dwarves, and they all meet a lot of faeries, soldiers and magical animals, blah, blah, blah and so forth.

There is an attempt give the Queen a sympathetic backstory, but it backfires, partly because it’s cryptic, and partly because she’s so unrepentantly evil.

The dwarf actors, including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone, are game, but the film can’t seem to decide if the dwarves are real people or comedy relief. Sadly, neither is effectively achieved.

It’s an amusing enough ride, most of the time, if you turn off your brain, but in the final analysis, it clanks around without any real drive or direction.

Rating: 2 out of 5

I will have some more reviews later in the summer.

Later Gators.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Do Cthulhus Dream of Protoplasmic Sheep?

When you’re a small time comic book artist like me, you treasure any collaborator who is creative, open to suggestions, and pays you on time.

I know a few terrific guys like that, and one of them is the very talented Mr. Phil McClorey.

The stunning cover of Phil McClorey's
new Horror in the West anthology, painted
by the talented Tony Taylor

 In my bizarre little life things often take on a surreal quality, and I usually have a good story about the weird ways in which I’ve met some of my friends. Like the great Ian Williams for instance.

When we were both animation students at Sheridan College, I left my car lights on one morning and returned later that day to a dead battery. Of the few remaining students still there, Ian was the only one with a car. He kindly gave me a jump-start, I thanked him profusely, and we went our separate ways… Until I did the same damn thing the very next day! Ian, in his unique, existential wisdom, decided the universe was shoving us together and that we should be friends. That was quite a leap of faith considering I must have appeared to be a scatterbrained moron, but he was right, of course, and we became very good buddies.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a cute story like that for Phil McClorey.

In fact, I really don’t recall exactly how we met. It may have been at a convention, or he may have gotten my name via the grapevine when looking for artists, I honestly don’t recall.

See, Phil’s not a loud, gregarious, annoying type of person, like me.

He’s just this nice, soft-spoken, unassuming guy who happens to craft creepy horror stories of the most gruesome and disturbing kind. Phil and I have collaborated on a few choice examples of his unnerving little yarns, and I’m still having nightmares.

You can check out those stories, Portal of Its Eye and URL Dead, and many other great tales of terror here:

From "Under the Mountain" Story by Phil McClorey,
art by Jeff McComsey and Jason Copland

Now we come to the reason for this post and the strange dream that led to my inclusion. One evening about a year or so ago, I had one of my typical weirdo nightmares. I saw it as a little movie, playing out before me, like I was the camera rather than a character in the story. (I’m sure any good psychologist would consider the fact I didn’t star in my own dream to be proof of incipient insanity… and who am I to disagree?)

In the dream, I saw this cowboy, in classic Wild West gear, sitting stoically on his horse in the cold drizzle, dutifully watching over his herd. Only, it wasn’t a herd of sheep or cattle. It was something far stranger… and more tentacled…

As usual, I woke up and jotted down the weirdness for future reference.

Less than 48 hours later, I got an E-mail from Phil, telling me he was putting together an anthology of Western-themed horror stories. Freaky, right? I immediately remembered good old Ian Williams and his thoughts on how the universe pushes people together for a greater purpose. It certainly seemed like something cosmic was up that day, though one had to wonder at what arcane powers were behind that little coincidence.

A tense moment from "Brother's Keeper"
Story by AG Pasquella, art by Brian Evinou

So, I drew up the story, Star Calf by name, and Phil included it in his new anthology Horror in the West.

And now that anthology needs some funding to be published. Please check out the Indiegogo fundraiser site here:

And, if you can, drop a few bucks in the kitty, (In exchange for some great perks!) and help foal this eerie little tome out into the world.

As for you, Phil McClorey, thanks for counting me in on this little adventure. “Cthulhu R’lyeh!

Panels from "Star Calf" story and art
by Sam Agro (That's me!)

Sunday, May 6, 2012


The World According to Sam

A few caveats:

Since I’m as old as dinosaur crap, some of this is pretty ancient stuff.

It’s a little Marvel-heavy since for years I followed almost nothing from DC except the Batman and Kirby titles.

And, I got a little carried away with my justifications and they turned into mini-dissertations.

Also, there’s WAY more than 10. (Hey, it’s my list, I’ll make it as long as I want!)

I’m not going to attempt to rank them, I just offer them up as truly great runs.

Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four
This was pretty good, right out of the gate, but I’m thinking especially of the issues starting right around #47, when Joe Sinnott takes over the regular inking chores, right up until Kirby’s departure from Marvel with issue 102. Sinnott starts inking just around the same time Kirby begins to open up his layouts and really go bananas. In my opinion, Joe was the best artist that ever inked Kirby. There are others who inked Jack’s pencils more faithfully, but I think the minor degree of refinement Joe adds is just right.

Nobody ever did giant, cosmic threats from beyond space and time, or balls-out, killer action better than Kirby did then, (or ever). And no one ever thought of so many great characters and ideas in rapid sequence as Stan and Jack did with the Fantastic Four. Galactus, Blastarr, Doc Doom, The Silver Surfer, Black Panther, The Inhumans, The Negative Zone, and on and on and on… Stan’s scripting, which often felt a little too overblown on some of the more down-to-earth titles, (like Daredevil, say), was perfectly matched to the titanic galactic imagery of Jack’s FF.

I’m not going to revisit the debate over who created what here. It will forever be an unknowable truth. All I do know is that the team of Stan and Jack together built something greater than either of them ever did on their own, or with other collaborators.

This is a brilliant and very long run of superior comics.

Who else but Jack 'King' Kirby?

Joss Whedon and John Cassiday’s Astonishing X-men
While I don’t love all the choices Whedon makes with the storietelling here, he certainly knows how to write a scene that keeps you reading. His stories are compelling and he doesn’t skimp on the action. He weaves a fairly interesting tale, and his characterization is top notch. He also returned Kitty Pryde to the lineup, which pleased me enormously.

However, the real story here is Cassiday’s art. Of all the guys who do the “wide screen” style of comics storytelling, (no panels taller than they are wide) he does it best. While Bryan Hitch is certainly effective in that style, his heavily photo-traced approach, while impressive, always leaves me a bit cold. Cassiday on the other hand still delivers a sense of the drawing being pulled from the artist’s imagination. His art is solid, strong and expressive, and has an appealing simplicity, while still being anatomically believable. But it’s the continuity I like best. It’s bold, straightforward and flawlessly paced.

Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury Agent of Shield
This isn’t a long run but it’s pretty amazing. Especially the Who is Scorpio storyline. It was at this point Jim stepped beyond merely aping the Marvel-style Kirby dynamism, and began to add in his own cinematic, and modern-art influenced innovations. It’s a bit more about the art than the writing, but the stories are certainly fun and solid. His experiments in pacing and page layout, and color use, utilizing it for its psychological and visual impact, were progressive. This included the judicious use of limited color and black and white panels. He also does the first 4-page gatefold ever done in the comics. At the time, these comics were truly mind blowing.

Pop art sensibilities nicely
wrangled into comics fun
by the innovative Jim Steranko

If you throw in the few amazing issues of Captain America he did around the same time, and give a nod to a couple of the things Neal Adams was doing, this is really the creative hinge between the Silver Age, and whatever you want to call the next wave of guys who came in. Guys like Wrightson, Jones, Kaluta, Gulacy, Windsor-Smith, Corben, Byrne, Zeck etc, etc.

This is VERY influential stuff.

Startling use of colour
from Jim Steranko

Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck and Gene Day’s Master of Kung-Fu
A few other artists crop up here and there in this astounding run of comics, (Including Toronto’s Jim Craig!) but these three artists all do absolutely fantastic, long chunks of this run. With a solid overall continuity supplied by Doug Moench, the book takes the chop socky movie genre and successfully marries it with the James Bond spy trend in this globe-trotting adventure. It’s all perfectly spiced with the unresolved father-son issues of Shang Chi and his crazy, world domination bent father, Fu Manchu. There’s some nice spicy romance in there too.

A unique layout from Gene Day

Gulacy fully absorbs the inventive storytelling lessons of Steranko and really digs into his rendering and choreography. He hits his stride nicely here. Zeck follows up by injecting a little Buscema-esque layout technique into the storytelling, and quickly sorts out his unique graphic style.

Another amazing page from Mr. Day

But the most interesting, and saddest story, is Gene Day’s. Beginning as the inker for Zeck, he improves at an astounding rate, and eventually takes over penciling AND inking the book. He re-incorporates the Steranko-Gulacy storytelling style and adds a few cool touches of his own.

I don’t know if you guys have seen his stuff, but there are a few issues that are truly incredible. Sadly, he doesn’t get to do nearly enough before his heart explodes from a bad diet, a crushing work schedule, and zero exercise. I truly believe he would have become one of the great modern masters had he lived. Unfortunately, his early death has left him largely forgotten.
An utterly astounding use of panel to panel flow
in this incredible 2-page spread by Gene Day

For those who may be interested, there's a nice little bio-appreciation of Gene Day, written by Dave Olbrich here:

Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s Savage Sword of Conan
I especially love the stories inked by Alfredo Alcala. I chose this series over Roy and John’s run on the color Conan comic for several reasons. First, the larger format and larger originals gave John a bit of room to breathe in the layouts. They are frequently much more interesting than what he was doing on the regular comic. Also, the spicier and more adult parameters of the black and white line allowed them to better capture the spirit of the original REH stories. And, to me at least, the black and white art feels somehow more “right” to present the adventures of Conan. There was no color in the Hyborian age! It was dark and gritty and grey.

Buscema and Alcala make us truly
feel the ancient world of Conan.

No inker captures the crusty and shiny textures of this lost time better than Afredo Alcala. His baroque rendering perfectly evokes a sense of time and place. Buscema is rumoured to have disliked Alfedo’s inks, which he claimed were overdone, but more likely he just felt they overpowered his pencils. However, in my opinion, John’s layouts are powerful enough to be utterly unmistakable even under the frenzied rendering of Alcala’s inks. Tony DeZuniga and Pablo Marcos also do some great inking on the series.

The books get a little weaker later on, but there are about 30 really great issues. Eventually, Roy runs out of REH stories to adapt, and John gets a little “conaned out” from doing both books. Also, Tony DeZuniga, who eventually becomes the regular inker, gets a bit sketchier after embellishing some outstanding issues in the early part of the run.

A lovely cover by Boris

Also the covers were often very awesome. Early issues by Boris Vallejo and later ones by Earl Norem are just marvellous, amongst others.

Jack Kirby’s Kamandi
Okay, a word of explanation. As far as Kirby’s DC tenure goes, I have to admit, that the Fourth World stuff is more in keeping with the creative, explosive, cosmic stuff Kirby did so well. And I do think the New Gods was an amazing effort.

However, the truncated nature of the story, which was always meant to be finite and reach an ultimate conclusion before cancellation cut it short, leaves one with a niggling hunger for a measured resolution. This is a desire that wasn’t really satisfied by Kirby’s later Hunger Dogs addendum. Also the Fourth world companion books Mr. Miracle and The Forever People were not great. Mr. Miracle is serviceable, but without any real spark, and the faux-hippie silliness of The Forever People is just downright laughable.

Anyway… on to Kamandi! Kirby quickly leaves his Planet of the Apes inspired beginnings behind and goes it one (or two, or three) better! He consistently turns out a really fun and unpredictable adventure series, with a few standout stories of particularly high quality. It was during this run that my “realism” prejudiced teenaged mind finally began to understand and appreciate the beauty of all things Kirby.

Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow
In addition to this being some of Neal Adams’ finest, and most expressive, artwork the book has the distinction of being one of the first to effectively apply the problems of the real world to the superhero genre. It explores issues of racism, politics, drug abuse, psychosis, and religious fervor amongst others. Though Stan Lee gave the timely issue of drug use a stab a bit earlier in Spiderman, it gets a much more measured, mature and personalized treatment by O’Neil and Adams here. Plus it still has some cool intergalactic stuff thrown in to spice things up. Again, this level of realism in the writing and the art was highly influential for later comics creators.

Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s Swamp Thing
This was Wrightson’s only tenure on a regular comic title. Even though he eventually cracked under the scheduling strain of penciling and inking an entire book in such a detailed style, it is an exceptional visual achievement. Only one issue, where other inkers were brought in to speed up production, suffers in lost quality.

The stories by Wein run the gamut from amazing to just passable, but there are several great ones. The origin issue is very solid, and has all the moving pathos that Marvel’s Man-Thing lacked. The Archane issues are terrific, and nicely set the stage for Alan Moore’s later use of the character. The Ravenwood Witches, and the Tunnel 13 issues are just great too.

Bernie's bat will always
be my personal favourite.

However, the standout for me is Swampy’s trip to Gotham and his dealings with Batman. Say what you will about Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Norm Beyfogle, Jim Lee, Dick Giordano, David Mazzuchelli, etc. I think this is the coolest Batman ever drawn! He is dark and creepy, and powerful, and both the rendering and graphic use of the cape are utterly astounding. The book is really Berni’s baby, and he goes to town. With the exception of some of the black and white stories he did later for Warren publishing, this is his finest comics work. Dripping in black and covered in cobwebs, it’s moody and creepy as hell! His later stuff even on Batman lacks the energy and focus of this seminal series.

Alan Moore’s and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing
Especially the issues inked by John Tottleben. Personally I think Alan Moore was the only 80’s “British Invasion” writer who lived up to the hype. (Neil Gaiman can bite me!) With his inventive and exploratory take on Swamp Thing, Moore really opened up the character’s potential. By making him a vegetable god, rather than just a swamp monster, Moore pushed the limits of imagination and horror. Here, Moore is just a damn fine writer, slugging his first big American gig out of the ballpark. Bissette’s art, while lacking somewhat in anatomical solidity, lacks nothing in terms of mood, creepiness and inventive layout.

The story about the fear-eating Ouija board monster still sends shivers up my spine. Bbrrrrr…

Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Batman Year One
Although this is a limited series rather than a “run”, I have to include it here. This is Miller before he got all weird after 9-11 and Mazzuchelli at his very best, with a stripped down, Toth-like rendering style and some perfectly paced storytelling. A joy to read, and an intriguing insight into Batman, before his experience afforded him the unassailable confidence his character has today.

Unfortunately Miller’s more recent take on Batman, with Jim Lee, is a disaster. I know that this is supposedly a “re-imagining” of the character, but he’s not a character that interests me in any way. Mazzuchelli moved out of mainstream comics to do some offbeat weird stuff with some idea of greater depth and meaning, but for me it’s all just comes off as self indulgent and inaccessible. Now he does no comics at all. What a shame!

Read these poor lost souls when they are at their very best in Year One.

Frank Miller’s Daredevil
I like both runs here. The earlier one, where Miller writes and pencils with inks by Klaus Janson, is terrific, and the later issues with Mazzuchelli really rock. This is the one where Frank really put all the pieces together. The Film Noir drenched dialogue and art style, the staccato pacing, the balletic battles over a gritty cityscape, the trials and tribulations of a superhero with no real super powers. Just great!

His meeting with Captain America is absolutely classic! But the big ones are, of course, The Electra stories, which are fantastic, and Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Born Again storyline. Simply the best Daredevil comics ever made, in my estimation. The subsequent, terrible, photo-manipulated Alex Maleev art makes me want to puke up a camel.

Joe Kubert’s Tarzan
What can you say? A consummate professional takes on the one of the greatest adventure characters ever created. The issues adapting the original ERB stories definitely come out on top here, but they are all fun, terrific, adventure stories drawn by one of comics very best artists in his prime.

Savage, untamed and awesome
Tarzan by the incredible Joe Kubert.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon
Much is said about the brilliance of Terry and the Pirates, but for my money, I prefer Canyon. Caniff has already hit his stride in terms of his drawing style, which was still developing in the early Pirates stuff. The best chunk here is from it’s beginning just after the second world war, until about 1955. The adventure, world politics and romance elements are at their best balance during this time. As the strip aged, the soap opera themes eventually took center stage, but for several years it was a great strip, with amazing art and terrific, punchy dialogue.

“Tell them to go fry their hats!”

Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men (Including the year Paul Smith drew it after Byrne left)
Claremont’s at his best here, before the whole thing got too complicated with myriad false implanted memories for half the characters, before the time travel stuff got out of hand, and before the cast got so huge it bogged down the storytelling. I almost like the Paul Smith issues best because he had this stripped down style I think worked nicely, and they did a lot with Kitty Pryde, a character of whom I’m very fond. But Byrne’s run here, and his later FF run, is about the best stuff he ever did before he became an irredeemable hack.

Will Eisner’s Spirit
Well duh…

Nocenti, Romita Jr. and Williamson’s Daredevil
What great comics! Nocenti’s stories have a nice, skewed, alternate point of view, and cover some interesting new territory. Romita Jr. is at his peak! Vigorous, lively, clear as a bell storytelling. The best mix of Kirby dynamism, Toth simplicity and Buscema solidity. Later some of that structural and anatomical integrity gives way to speed somewhat, but he’s great here.

However, Al Williamson is the real lynchpin on this book. In his last regular art gig, his flawless inking adds even more anatomical solidity, and his black spotting is perfect. Having achieved a nicely loose, but surprisingly accurate, inking style in his later years, he pulls these great Romita Jr. pencils up to an astounding level of facility. (And yes, the Lee Weeks art on Daredevil is awesome too. In fact I think Williamson inked some of that too. Weeks is one of the greatest pencilers ever, and sadly underrated, as far as I’m concerned.)

Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg
Howard was great here. He was really stretching the boundaries of storytelling and content, and nicely weaving satire in with the action and adventure. He uses a simpler, looser rendering style on the art here which is ideal to the subject matter. Though he later takes this sketchy approach too far, (in my opinion), here it’s nicely balanced, evocative and expressive. His progressive use of sound effects is very interesting too. Also, it’s just downright hilarious. Howard does a lot of experimenting, both visually and in terms of content, and it isn’t always successful. But hey, at least he’s trying stuff! And when it works it’s awesome.

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (And related milieu.)
What’s not to love here? It’s a crazy, red-skinned, devil-man with a big gun who battles spooky supernatural threats along side a team of weirdoes, mutants, and military men. Mike’s art is like the marvelous comics love-child of Frank Frazetta and Alex Toth, with a high contrast sense of mood and design that is second to none. Mike has also chosen outstanding collaborators for the expanded Hellboy line, like Duncan Fegredo and Guy Davis. This is just awesome, fun comics.

Honorable Mentions
Walt Simonson’s Thor
Baron and Rude’s Nexus
Abuli and Bernet’s Torpedo
Mark Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales
Lee and Kirby’s Captain America
Wolfman and Colan’s Tomb of Dracula
Lee and Romita’s Spiderman
Dave Stevens’s Rocketeer

Well, that’s it. Take it as you will.

Ultimately, what I learned from this is…I read too damn many comics…