Monday, September 28, 2009

Mad About Sergio

This past weekend, my family and I had the privilege to attend a special reception for "Mad about Sergio," a gallery exhibition for celebrated, award-winning Mad cartoonist Sergio Aragones, at the Ojai Valley Museum. (I'm also proud to count myself as a professional acquaintance of the artist!) In attendance at the reception was the artist himself, Sergio Aragones, as well as a lot of his good friends from the cartooning world, including "Cathy" comic strip creator Cathy Guisewite, The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening, "Momma" cartoonist Mell Lazarus, and Usugai Yojimbo comic-book creator Stan Sakai.

Though the show ends this week, if you have a chance to catch it before it closes, by all means do so.

The exhibit provides a comprehensive retrospective of Aragones' work and career. Plenty of the artist's original art are included in the show—quite a few are surprisingly large in size, and impressive in their scope and the tiny details for which the fast-drawing cartoonist is known. Samples of some of Aragones' other arts and crafts interests—among them needlework—are also included, which the artist notes helps keeps his creative juices flowing. Pieces from his personal collection of original art by other cartoonists Aragones admires are also in the exhibition. This includes work by Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck and original comic strip art of classic work like Winnie Winkle and The Captain and the Kids. Many of Aragones' awards are also in the exhibition, as well as a delightful short documentary about the mounting of the show.

And in keeping with the cartoonist's sense of fun, many samples of Aragones' spontaneous cartoons can be found directly on the walls of the gallery itself, often interacting with the display pieces. A re-creation of the artist's work space is on display at the show as well, as seen below.

The show was mounted in conjunction with a series of talks and presentations by the artist.

It was a delightful evening and a lot of fun to visit the show with the artist in attendance.

Below are my photos from the exhibition. To see all the photos, click here. (Note that the photo at the top of this post is from a Los Angeles Times article about the show.)

Click here to see all the photos.

Friday, September 25, 2009

All Hitler, All the Time!

Below are reviews of three films I've seen in the past year which, coincidentally, all featured Adolf Hitler as a common thread...


While competently serviceable and straightforward, Valkyrie provides just enough detail to ground the story and make it fascinating in a "you are there" sort of way, but not enough to fully engage you or to truly feel the tragedy of the lost opportunity or of the people who sacrificed their lives trying to stop Hitler.

Tom Cruise plays Claus von Stauffenberg, the real-life German army officer who participated in an assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944 during World War II.

The film wastes little time in getting to the task at hand: soon after the opening of the film (in which we perfunctorily learn of von Stauffenberg's disenchantment with Hitler and the Nazi regime), he joins a conspiracy of German politicians and military officers who are planning to overthrow der Fuhrer. With typical German efficiency, the group plots to use the emergency succession plan already in place—codenamed "Valkyrie"—for its own ends: once Hitler is eliminated, the group will put Valkyrie in motion, and use it to take control of the government and German military, and sue for peace.

Most war movies of this kind usually follow a tried-but-true formula: the audience is introduced to the cast of characters, then watches them bond and carry out the mission.

In contrast, Valkyrie gets to the assassination attempt fairly quickly. And while a few sequences focus on some of the conspirators quietly recruiting others to assist them (or at least not stand in their way), the film doesn't linger too much on the planning or disagreements over the assassination plan before proceeding to the task at hand.

In fact, the primary focus of the story around which the film's suspense is built centers on the gradual unraveling of the plot: while some of the conspirators dithered out of uncertainty that the assassination attempt actually succeeded, others pushed to move quickly fearing they would lose the moment.

In the end, of course, Hitler survived. While the film uses the conspirators' uncertainty as a way to create suspense, since the audience knows historically that Hitler survived, the real tension in the last part of the film comes from waiting for the whole house of cards to come crashing down on the plotters.

It is this latter part of the film, in fact, that is most effective. Ultimately, however, while certainly competently done, the movie doesn't seem to have anything more on its mind than telling its story. While it has a sense of style, and captures time and place well, given the subject matter, it's surprisingly low key.

To give the film some additional gravitas, the filmmakers surround star Tom Cruise with an ensemble of respected British actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, and Eddie Izzard. While they all deliver, at the same time, I often thought that the script wasn't as smart as it liked to believe!

The Night of the Generals
While on this subject, I thought this would be an opportune time to review a fascinating film called The Night of the Generals, in which the attempt to assassinate Hitler portrayed in Valkyrie plays a crucial role.

Released in 1967, the film stars Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif (first paired together in Lawrence of Arabia), and is best described as a cross between a World War II drama and a Jack the Ripper murder mystery. (It reportedly also was the last film to face trouble with the Production Code Administration, before the introduction of the Motion Picture Association of America's G through X rating system the following year.)

Sharif plays a "good" German army officer who is investigating a series of prostitute murders, which he believes is being committed by a senior member of the German army staff. O'Toole is one of the generals who is a suspect, along with actors Donald Pleasance and Charles Grey. (Other prominent actors in the film include Tom Courtenay, Philippe Noiret, and Christopher Plummer as General Erwin Rommel.) The film is told in flashback after the war, from the point of view of a French police detective who had befriended Sharif's character during the investigation and wants to know what happened both to Sharif's character (who did not survive the war) and the murder inquiry.

The "Valkyrie" assassination plot plays a side but pivotal role in The Night of the Generals, and is actually portrayed in the movie. Interestingly, von Stauffenberg is played by a much older actor than Cruise—I was surprised to discover, however, that the real-life von Stauffenberg was much closer in age and looks to Cruise than to the actor portraying him in Generals!

While contrasting the film to Valkyrie may not be a fair comparison, ironically, the Night of the Generals presents a much wider canvas, and is much more epic in scope and drama. While presenting a character who embodies both Nazism and psychotic tendencies is hardly an original conceit, it was engrossing to watch a film like this that is able to elevate the story and subject matter by successfuly entwining a murder mystery with actual historical events. And, of course, O'Toole is always a delight when given a character who chews up the scenery.

I had minor quibbles with the ending of the film—which perhaps is a reflection of the changing meaning of "honor"—but nevertheless, the Night of the Generals is a movie with rather epic ambitions that is beautifully shot, and had the advantage of having been filmed on location in Europe (Paris is prominent in the film).

To see a clip of this film and actor Peter O'Toole in their awesome glory, check out this nifty clip from the TCM website. Another clip can be found here, featuring the sequence (starting at about 4:58 minutes into the extended clip) that instantly pulled me into the movie when I stumbled across it on TCM. Finally, below is a trailer of the film.

One more "Hitler film": back in 2008, a German-language film, Downfall (der Uturang in the original German), was released in the U.S. The movie caused some minor controversy in Germany because there are strict rules about the portrayal of Nazis and Hitler in the country, and worldwide because of the fear that a film that delved into the personality and private life of Hitler would somehow "humanize" him. (Downfall also gained some notoriety on the Web because people used a clip from the film for some very funny mashups of Hitler ranting about various topics.)

Downfall covers the final weeks of Hitler in his bunker as Germany and Berlin collapses around him at the end of World War II. The story is ostensibly told from the point of view of his secretary, Traudl Junge.

At the end of the '90s, the real-life Junge released a memoir about her experience as Hitler's secretary, which was followed by a well known documentary about her. In addition to providing a fascinating glimpse into the private Hitler, the book documents her journey that began with the excitement and pride of being hired as der Fuhrer's secretary, to the discovery of his war crimes and dealing with her subsequent guilt after the war. It seems clear that trying to reconcile the man she admitted was one of the "best bosses" she ever had with the fact that he also is one of mankind's greatest monsters was a difficult process.

The film cleverly opens up the story outside the bunker, primarily by focusing on several key characters who represent the wide range of experiences of the German people at the end of the war—from the ordinary citizens, to children, to war-weary soldiers, to the true believers—and continuing to follow their stories throughout the film. The story is both a great study of people under tremendous strain, as well as of the warped psychology of blind devotion and the cult of personality.

At the heart of it, of course, is the figure of Adolf Hitler, portrayed by Bruno Ganz. The best I can say about Ganz's performance is that he is a marvel—from the moment he appears onscreen, you never think of him as an actor portraying Hitler but rather you immediately accept him in the role. Most actors cast in the role—including the actor in Valkyrie—never manage to truly project any presence in the role.

Yes, Hitler is "humanized" in that he is in this film—what he always has been—a human being. By the same token, you do get flashes of his madness—or at least his skewed view of life—that made him the monster he is. In one key scene, played quietly, Hitler talks about why he believes compassion is an unnatural emotion and a weakness; his disdain for human life and of even the well being of the German civilians who he believes do not deserve to survive without him reveal the height of perverse narcissm.

Downfall is an outstanding film that manages to literally capture the "bunker mentality" of Hitler and his circle of diehard followers in the final weeks of the war, while also opening up the story to portray the wider tragedy of the suffering he brought to the German people.

Below are a couple of pretty good mashups posted online featuring the same clip from Downfall.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Original Art Collection

As a cartoonist, I love looking at original comic book and comic strip art. In addition to finding them personally energizing, seeing the originals—complete with the actual brushstrokes, penlines and whiteout corrections—gives you a sense of the artist's working methods and thought process. For these reasons, I love visiting comic art exhibitions and museums whenever possible (I try to visit the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco whenever I'm in Northern California).

Since many pieces of original art I'd love to own are usually out of my price range, I've never been a major collector of original comic strip/comic book art. Nevertheless, I do own a few original pieces that I thought would be fun to share. (What particularly brought these to mind recently is the fact that I've begun framing and matting the pieces.*)

Though my small collection has admittedly been driven mostly by affordability, of course, I also keep an eye out for work by artists I know and admire, and for pieces I find appealing personally.

My first major acquisition were several original pieces by cartoonist Howard Chaykin that I purchased in 1991. This included two pages from his 1987 Blackhawk mini-series from DC Comics; below is a piece that I was particularly thrilled to score, which was used on the back cover for one of the issues, as well as within the main story (click on any of the images that follow to see them larger and in more detail):

Below is a another Chaykin piece purchased at the same time—I believe it's the original blueline art from a Nick Fury mini-series. Consisting of a black acetate overlay over a backing board on which the original colors are applied, this is the art that is shot and from which the colored printing plates are made:

One of my most personally prized pieces is the 1976 Johnny Hazard daily strip below by Frank Robbins, which I purchased from a dealer at the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con for a surprisingly affordable price—well under $100! (Hazard ran from 1944 to 1977.) Though Robbins is not as well remembered today, he was a disciple of the Caniff/Sickles school of cartooning—but as one can see in the piece below, despite following in their footsteps, he was an immensely naturally gifted artist in his own right, who developed a unique and distinctive style of his own. This piece hangs proudly in the main entryway of my home. You can also see a photo of it framed at the top of this blog.

Over the years, I've had the privilege to become friends with several fellow cartoonists. One is Mike Vozburg, who is not also a terrific cartoonist, but a real student of the history of comics—I've spent time with Mike talking about cartoonists we both like, and I've enjoyed his anecdotes about working in the industry.

One day while visiting his home, Mike generously gave me some original pieces as gifts. Below is one nice representative pieces from his run on American Flagg!:

Around 2002 or 2003 (still trying to track down the correct year!), I purchased the following two pieces from artist Mike Royer at the San Diego Comic-Con. Royer is considered by some to be the best inker that late comic-book legend Jack Kirby ever had. When I met him, Royer had been working for many years for Disney's licensing division, and he was at the show selling some of his original concept pieces. The pieces below are hung in our hallway, appropriately leading to our residence's bedrooms.

Finally, I thought I'd throw in for your enjoyment the piece below—even my wife has picked up the occasional work of original art! This is a piece she purchased from an Archie artist (I believe my wife had it signed by the artist, Don Parent). Somewhere in my collection, I also have a Robin (from Batman and Robin) page purchased by my wife, since he is one of her favorite characters.

In the future, I hope to show off more of my other pieces. I also have a nice collection of movie/promotional posters that I'll likely share at some point here as well!

* While framing and matting can be quite expensive, I just recently discovered that if you buy an off-the-shelf frame that can hold a mat, the price of the mat itself is actually quite affordable, usually under $20—it is the custom-sized frame (and glass) that can make the purchase price quite expensive, usually more than $150-200!!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"I always wondered when Warner Brothers would figure out that they owned DC Comics?"

Shortly after I had scheduled to publish my comments below about the Disney/Marvel announcement, another huge entertainment-related news story broke which threatened to overshadow the Disney/Marvel story....

I'm speaking, of course, about the announcement that Ellen Degeneres is joining "American Idol."

I'm kidding, of course—I'm actually referring to the shakeup over at DC Comics, in which in a move similar to Disney/Marvel, the venerable comic-book publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman now becomes DC Entertainment and more fully integrated within its parent company at Warner Brothers.

To be fair, a move like this takes a lot of planning so it's likely been on the boards for awhile. The timing of the announcement, however, was no doubt precipitated by Disney's action, perhaps in an attempt to suck some of the air out of the excitement over Disney's move. While I personally found the timing poor, conveying a sense of desperation, I guess WB felt that if it waited longer (or until the new year), they might otherwise look like total also-rans that were copycatting Disney. By making the announcement sooner than later, they can say they meant to do it all along.

Indeed, such a move was expected at some point. It was generally agreed that WB had never done a good job of managing or fully exploiting its superhero properties—an example being the fitful way the company dealt with the re-launch of the Superman franchise earlier in this decade (at one point, a Batman/Superman film was on the boards), and the off-and-on again Wonder Woman movie.

WB has owned DC since the '70s, but the huge conglomerate generally kept the comic-book company at arm's distance, meddling little in its affairs, and licensing out its characters piecemeal, no doubt seeing the company as a minor licenseable property within its multimedia empire. (As one columnist noted, "I always wondered when Warner Brothers would figure out that they owned DC Comics?")

Marvel, too, had similar problems maximizing the potential of its properties—witness two on-the-cheap film adaptations of Captain America and the Fantastic Four from the '90s that the studio paid to bury so embarrassing were the results. But when the Spider-Man films proved the worth of their properties, Marvel—being a bit smaller and, hence, nimbler than the WB-owned DC—moved to clamp down on its properties and assert greater creative say and control by establishing its own movie studio. With comic-book properties now becoming the source of highly successful tent-pole franchises, WB has clearly seen the light, and is now hoping to emulate this integrated approach that creates some continuity and synergy in the way DC's characters are handled.

To echo what I wrote below about the Disney/Marvel partnership (and written before WB's announcement), it’s likely that new DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson—who self-admittedly is not "by nature a comic fan"—does not plan to manage DC Comics or its comic-book publishing operations on a day-to-day basis. Like Disney with Marvel, as long as DC makes money and supports its own operations, DC likely will be allowed to continue publishing its comics as it sees fit, if for no other reason than to continue producing the content that will be the source for other more lucrative new media platforms. Nelson’s job is not to run a comic-book company, but to migrate those characters and their decades of content to films and new media.

While I would prefer to avoid the term "winners" and "losers," in such shakeups there invariably always will be collatoral damage. Chief among them is now-former DC Comics President and Publisher Paul Levitz. Levitz is a true-blue fanboy, starting at DC in his teens (particularly known for his writing on the Legion of Super-Heroes), who got an MBA while he remained working with the company, and rose to the position of president and publisher. Generally recognized as one of the "good guys," Levitz will return to writing (including Legion) and work as a "special consultant" due to his extensive knowledge of the DC universe. While it's not clear whether Levitz was given an opportunity to remain in a management position at DC, the change likely would have made him a mid-level person in the new new DC Entertainment chain of command, so he likely opted to exit as gracefully as possible.

With much of the dust now settled, I thought I might as well weigh in on my own thoughts about what likely will be one of the biggest comics/movie/entertainment news stories of the year: Disney's acquisition of Marvel Comics for $4 billion.

Though there have been a few reported predictable fanboy rants like the one below (quoted at The Beat)—
This is like disgusting in many levels......

Disney has always been in their entire existence to buy out the competition or aquire it and then ruin the foundations it was based on. Although it may be a “sweet deal” to everyone who has stock Marvel will forever be a Disney product and I will not buy anything from Marvel again. 4 billion is “chump change” to Disney, Marvel will “lose” out again in making more money on their own!!!!!!

I think this is a “bad” idea for Marvel to “sell out” to Disney I mean the reason Marvel is doing well is because of us “kids” who are now in to their 40’s and 50’s who still appreciate the characters we grew up with and totally support all of the merchandise involved with Marvel heroes.
—for the most part, I doubt the average person (or, indeed, even most comic-book fans) will see much of a difference. (The above rant typifies the distorted view of some fans who equate emotional investment of a product with actual ownership.)

Marvel Comics will undoubtedly continue to produce their comics—and probably even their films—under the Marvel Comics imprint, with little if any meddling by Disney. Disney acquired Marvel for the strength of its brand, and I doubt Disney would do anything to risk damaging that brand, under the "why fix what ain't broke" axiom. Disney will likely grant Marvel the same degree of independence it has given Pixar, leaving well enough alone (keeping in mind this never would have been possible under former Disney CEO Michael Eisner's stewardship).

So if Disney isn't interested in directly running a comic-book publishing company, what do both sides get out of the bargain?

The $4 billion Disney paid for Marvel wasn't for the joy of publishing comic books, but rather for Marvel's rich goldmine of 7,000 characters and 70 years of story continuity. So while Marvel will continue to publish its comics as it always has done, no doubt Disney will work with Marvel to bring its characters to new, more lucrative platforms.

With this acquisition, Disney also finally has an instant, credible foothold in a market that so far has eluded the house of mouse: young male adolescents. While Disney Channel has evolved into the de facto channel for tween girls, Disney has met with less success finding ways to appeal to boys (witness Disney's launch earlier this year of the XD Channel). Marvel solves that problem.

And on top of all this, of course, any profits generated by Marvel will trickle upwards towards Disney's coffers.

For its part, Marvel gets the muscle and access to the deep pockets of one of the most recognized and largest multimedia companies in the world. Despite its success, Marvel has struggled finding adequate resources to achieve its goal to self-finance its films—witness the embarrassing attempts to save money that nearly resulted in the exit of director Jon Favreau from the Iron Man sequel and of Samuel L. Jackson as recurring character Nick Fury.

Yes, this is a sea change—but remember that Marvel's main competitor, DC Comics (publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), is itself owned by Warner Brothers. Most changes will be transparent to consumers, and will occur more on the business/platform side of things rather than content, particularly as Hollywood continues exploring new media platforms as traditional print, television and film struggle to re-invent themselves. Marvel's established characters and fan base will give Disney recognizable content to more aggressively explore new arenas.

To me, aside from the actual acquisition, the real story behind the announcement was that it was such a well kept secret. The news took everyone by surprise, turning it into an even bigger story as news outlets scrambled to get up to speed. Most observers quickly saw the great genius of the partnership, and even rival companies found themselves kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.

For a detailed report on how the deal happened and an assessment of the Marvel acquisition, I recommend entertainment blogger Nikki Finke's recent coverage of the news.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Order Issue 12 Online Now!

After a brief embargo to give comic-book retailers priority to order advance copies of Rob Hanes Adventures #12 for their stores and customers, the issue is now available online at the WCG Comics website! So if for some reason you were unable to purchase the issue at your local comic-book retail store, you may now order it direct from WCG.

To order, visit the WCG Comics website, or go directly to our online store.

In the issue, Justice International private eye Rob Hanes is hired to extradite a beautiful female felon back to the U.S. and becomes stranded with her on a desert island in the Pacific after their plane goes down. Cover by guest artist Benton Jew. For a preview, click here.

New RH Adventures Pin Buttons!

In addition to issue 12, also now available is an RHA pin button! Only 75 cents, or free with any order of the series' entire run (still only $25!!!)

Up Next: Trade Paperback Collection

I'm pleased to finally report that the first volume of the projected trade paperback collection of the Rob Hanes Adventures series is close to reality! The series has been completely re-lettered (replacing my earlier hand-lettered effort), which required some digital retouching of the art.

Expect a more official announcement and promotional push soon regarding the release of the trade!

Website Upgraded

While adding the newest items to the online catalog, I made some minor upgrades to the WCG Comics website. In addition to some minor design tweaks, visitors will see a fancier and traditional online drop-down navigation menu bar at the top of most pages at the site. Let us know what you think!