Organised jointly by cartoonist Sonny Liew and writer-historian CT Lim in conjunction with the National Library, Speech Bubble is a exhibition showcase of the marginalised art form popularly known as comic books. The opening night event was held last night at the National Library, Basement 1 Central Public Library and I was fortunate to get invited!
“But I certainly believe it’s not a gimmick. It’s a story that we spent a long time on, that’s compelling and captures the zeitgeist of the world. It will make readers wonder how the heck we’ll get out of this.” These are the words of Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort when asked if making Steve Rogers/Captain America a Hydra double-agent was a “gimmick”.
Our protagonist is Jack Barlow – a bit of a loser character. Jack’s pregnant wife – Patience – is murdered in 2016 and that event traumatises him for life. Thirteen years later, he comes across a time travel device which provides him with the opportunity to prevent Patience’s murder. Naturally, things don’t quite pan out as planned.
Real life is scary.
By now, the two major comic book companies viz. Marvel and DC are virtually indistinguishable. Secret Wars = Convergence. Same story, same consequences. Endless reboots.
At the launch of the seventh edition of Troy Chin’s The Resident Tourist held at Books Kinokuniya, the author himself mentioned to me that my reviews of his books are ‘biased’. Meaning that my glowing assessments of his work are somehow less than objective due to the fact that I appreciated their intrinsic value as art.
Why does this exist? Well, a couple of reasons.
— Sequels are profitable.
— Trilogies are in vogue
— A cash in on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (where the version of Batman is inspired by The Dark Knight Returns)
Oh, you wanted artistic reasons.
The latest DC crossover event Convergence gave the company the excuse to reboot its characters yet again. For some reason, Marvel and DC are convinced that comic book readers constantly want something new in lieu of memorable stories.
The Silver Age Green Lantern (a.k.a. Hal Jordan) gets his latest makeover with the Renegade storyline: Hal gets a new look as he goes rogue from the Green Lantern Corps and along the way, Jordan steals a Green Lantern prototype gauntlet and power pack from the armoury.
It seldom gets as meta as it did in the 4-part Airboy series recently published by Image Comics, written by Jame Robinson and illustrated by Greg Hinkle.
Basically, Robinson and Hinkle are hired by Image Comics to reboot WWII hero Airboy for the millennial generation. Instead, the mini-series is about Robinson and Hinkle meeting Airboy (!) being transported into WWII and actually participating in an Airboy mission.
To be honest, I rather balked at yet another superhero being ‘reinvented’. Already, Marvel has given us a female Thor and so it seemed cliched to now come up with a distaff Wolverine. As you know Logan is dead – though the Old Man Logan version turned up in a X-Men comic recently – and so his clone X23 (Laura Kinney) takes up his mantle, in his original yellow and blue costume.
Well you know when it comes to big superhero comics crossover, it’s easy to be cynical & look at them as nothing more than cash-grabs i.e. a gimmick to lure completist fans to buy every comic ‘associated’ with the main event storyline.
Well, strictly speaking, the issues focusing on Batman, Superman and the Flash do not occur within the current continuity of the regular titles so, one might argue that these one-shots do not qualify as cynical cash-grabs but a genuine attempt to explore the implications of Darkseid’s death.
Probably aware that comic fans might just be getting tired of publishers using the death of superheroes to create the facade of something new happening in their titles, DC have decided to kill off its most iconic villain, Darkseid (see above)!
This event occurred in the currently ongoing Darkseid War within the pages of Justice League. With the demise of this dark god, DC have elevated five characters to divine status viz. The Flash – God of Death, Superman – God of Strength, Batman – God of Knowledge (see above), Shazam – God of Gods and Lex Luthor – God of Apokolips! Of course, everything returns to normal by the end of this arc but curiously to see how it all pans out.
What was perhaps jarring was that Act One of Darkseid War had quite brilliant artwork by Jason Fabok but Act Two features less impressive work from Francis Manupal. Although that last full page seemed just fine (see above). Well, of course, the narrative could have done with less characters – it’s so hard to keep up as usual with superhero plots (convoluted for its own sake) but all things considered a good run thus far.
While the success of the Marvel Studios movies has had an impact on Hollywood, it has also changed the face of Marvel comic books. Where once the X-Men held sway as Marvel Comics’ main draw, now it’s the Avengers. Look at the teaser for the post-Secret Wars All-New All-Different Marvel and you will hard pressed to find a single X-Man or Fantastic Four member. Why? Because Fox owns the movie rights to those characters and from a business perspective, why would Marvel promote these characters? See how screwed up it all is now?
As Spider-Man is back in the Marvel fold – in the sense that Marvel is collaborating with Sony on the character – the Spider-verse is high up on Marvel’s priorities. Except that Peter Parker/Spider-Man has morphed into Tony Stark/Iron Man. What a revolting development! Also, there are titles for Spider-Gwen, Spider-Woman & the Ultimate Spider-Man, all in the same universe! Confused yet? Don’t worry, you will be.
Speaking of Stark, the Invincible Iron Man #1 at least reads like a proper title compared to the anthology nature of Amazing Spider-Man #1. The most interesting moment in this reboot comes in the form of a date with an Indian (female) scientist where the latter recounts that she has invented a cure for the mutant gene with no negative side effects. And there you go, with one stroke of the pen, Fox will have no more mutant characters to make movies about! Will Marvel do this?
Avengers #0 crams an introduction to all the various A-teams (remember when it used to be X-teams?) in the new Marvel Universe. I must admit that I did not understand a single storyline and was bemused by the fact that the Squadron Supreme – which began as a Marvel parody of the Justice League – is now a fully fledged title within the Marvel Universe. How lame can you get?
So yeah, don’t expect me to re-visit this rebooted new Marvel anytime soon – except perhaps to explore how badly Marvel has messed up the X-Men and Fantastic Four.
Comic book legend Jack Kirby would have been 98 on 28th August 2015. He passed away in 1994 at the age of 76 and at that time, his work was not recognised by the company that had benefited most from his creativity viz. Marvel Comics. It’s certainly fair to say that Jack Kirby (and not Stan Lee) is the father of the Marvel Universe. Even without getting into the arguments about who created what, there’s no denying that Kirby is the originator of the visuals that proved so popular initially with comic book fans, and ultimately moviegoers worldwide. So let’s take a look at what Kirby had done in the 60s/70s, that now form the foundation of the billion dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. Long live the King!
Calling this second volume of adaptations of Michael Moorcock’s classic Elric series Stormbringer is a mite confusing, when in fact this graphic novel actually concludes the plotline of Elric of Melniboné. That minor complaint aside, Elric Vol. 2 definitely maintains the cutting edge intensity and emotional depth that made Vol. 1 so satisfying as a modern take of the saga of the doomed albino emperor.
In summary, Elric moves heaven, earth and hell in a desperate attempt to rescue his lover Cymoril from the evil clutches of her brother, the traitorous Yyrkoon. Along the way, Elric receives the ‘gift’ of the soul-drinking black blade, Stormbringer and discovers that getting what he wants can come at a tremendous cost, especially when one is dealing with demons. This time round, writer Julien Blondel is joined by Jean-Luc Cano and the duo do an excellent job in conveying the other-worldliness of the Melnibonean characters.
Forty years old this story might be but the relevance of Moorcock’s disturbing commentary on decadent power remains potent.
The superhero character called Miracleman has always had a troubled existence.
Born in the UK in 1954 as Marvelman due to an American lawsuit, revived in 1983 in revolutionary fashion by Alan Moore, threatened by Marvel Comics, necessitating a change of name when licensed in the USA, discontinued due to bankruptcy of publisher and complicated ownership disputes. The character remained in limbo for 20 odd years before being acquired by Marvel Comics!
Which brings us to the present day, where Miracleman Book Three: Olympus completes Alan Moore’s (credited as ‘The Original Writer’) critically acclaimed run on the character. As with the other Miracleman collections, the actual reprints make up less than half of the hardcover book with the remainder being ‘bonus’ features (e.g. original artwork and scripts) with the hefty US$39.99 price tag being somewhat unjustified.
Worst still, Marvel has elected to incorporate two stories that have no place being in the same book as this storyline. Seriously, what is the relevance? No wonder Moore is pissed off with Marvel. This is almost as atrocious behaviour as DC’s cash-grab with Before Watchmen. What. The. Fuck.
In the final analysis, Olympus is probably next to Watchmen, the finest superhero story ever told – never to be surpassed (not forgetting artist John Totleben’s amazing work). Narrated from Miracleman’s perspective, it is the logical response to the question – “What if Superman really existed” and also the perfect ending to the Miracleman story. But of course, due to commercial considerations, it is not.
But aside from these objections, if you have never read Olympus, then I highly recommend you pick up this book. Just do me a favour and put the book down once you have finished with the story itself and ignore the ‘bonus’ features. Or better yet, read the story all over again.
Who is this Singapore comic book artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye that was able to channel the history of comics through the critical Singaporean events of the last 60-70 odd years? Well, he does exists… BUT only as a figment of artist Sonny Liew’s fecund imagination.
So yes, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is an imaginary tale presented within the context of Singapore history but an imaginary tale nonetheless. It is an artfully constructed “What If” tale and encourages the reader to imagine – “what if Singapore had an legitimate comic book history”. What if, indeed.
Thus, though couched in biographical terms as some kind of historical document – the story of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a fantasy, a fairy tale where the history of comic books unfolded in decidedly Singaporean circumstances.
So while everyone (including the authorities) seem hellbent on treating the story as some kind of political commentary with the potential to undermine the status quo, a more accurate understanding would be to perceive The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye as a tribute to comic books and to Singapore itself.
In that sense, I would state categorically that the true purpose of this ambitious graphic novel would fly over most Singaporean heads and by the story’s denouement would leave the same disappointed that it was not the middle finger to the Government that it had been perceived to be.
With references to Osamu Tesuka, Harvey Kurtzman, Windsor McKay, Eagle, Pogo, MAD, Spider-Man and the like, it would be abundantly clear to a comic book geek what Sonny is trying to achieve here. And the manner in which he is able to weave these references into the Singaporean narrative is sheer genius.
My particular favourite moment is where Sonny channels Philip K Dick by paying homage to Dick’s alternate reality opus The Man in the High Castle (google it for details) to imagine a Singapore where history was altered somewhat from reality. Again, the shock of seeing this alternate reality is probably worth the entire price of the book!
And what about the artwork itself? Any description I would give would not do it justice, surely. Reflecting the stylistic changes in comic book history, Sonny handles each different ‘genre’ like a master, while keeping his own artistic identity intact. No mean feat! A wonderfully immersive visual experience with an eye for detail that will blow you away.
In the final analysis, I will not mince my words – The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a masterpiece. Nuff said.
Let’s get real, shall we?
When it comes to stories presented in words and visuals, the visual aspect will always trump the word aspect. That is why movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction and Furious 7 are able to do well at the box office despite not having very good stories. This also applies in comic books, which is – like film – a graphic medium and very much dependent on the visual quality for its appeal and success.
Of course, I am not saying that the writing does not matter in comic books but even the best work of my favourite comic book writer Alan Moore, was enhanced by the sterling work of his collaborators viz. Steve Bissette (Swamp Thing), John Totleben (Swamp Thing, Miracleman), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Kevin O’Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) etc etc. Which made Moore’s Supreme much less than expectations due to the artwork of Rob Liefeld!
Which is why ultimately I believe that Jack Kirby deserves more credit for the success of the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee. Moreover, Kirby had significant input in many of the classic Marvel Universe issues as plotter! It’s impossible to imagine a single modern-day Marvel film without the contribution of Jack Kirby and yet, only with Avengers: Age of Ultron, was Kirby credited as a co-creator, alongside Stan Lee. This was, of course, due to a recent settlement between Marvel and Kirby’s estate.
However, to the layman movie goer and naive self-professed fan of the Marvel films, Stan Lee will always be thought of as the creator of the Marvel Universe, with each succeeding annoying cameo being shoved down everybody’s throat. But whilst Lee’s hokey self-aggrandisement continues to reveal the huckster that he has always been, the Kirby legacy can be seen by all – unwittingly – in every costume design and most importantly, every powerful fight scene!
Long live the King!
Stan Lee is collaborating with writer Peter David and artist Colleen Doran to create his graphic memoir, billed as ” the story of how modern comics came to be.” Revealed last week by Doran, Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir will be published in October as a hardcover graphic novel by Simon & Schuster.
Look at the characters in the background, do you know who co-created them with Stan Lee? Would this graphic memoir make any mention of the manner in which Stan Lee has taken almost all the credit all these years and left nothing for Jack Kirby? I sincerely hope that this memoir will go some way to repairing the damage Lee has done to Kirby’s legacy.
When DC first collapsed the multiverse into one universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths, I was rather upset to lose the alternative earths that gave DC its unique flavour. Most of all, of course, I hated what it meant for the Legion of Super-heroes. But that’s another story, altogether. Well, a couple of years ago, DC went the opposite direction and brought the multiverse back – 52 universes to be exact (I rather enjoyed the process though – the Flashpoint event). In the Multiversity series, writer Grant Morrison has begun to develop this concept and take it to its logical conclusion, exploring the diverse universes that the New 52 had introduced into the continuity.
Thus far, the most interesting issue was undoubtedly the one with “Pax Americana” (featuring the ex-Charlton characters) drawn by Frank Quitely and coming across like a Watchmen homage of sorts. The latest issue – subtitled as “Guidebook” brings the concept home with Morrison detailing the 52 universes that exist (with a few mysterious exceptions) within the greater DC continuity now. Potentially, this provides creators with lots of room to work with, without having to be limited to the continuity of Earth-0 (see below).
After all, there are 51 other universes to be explored! Seems like DC is the place to be to at least see whether they can make this ambitious concept work. Time to investigate them universes more closely!
Written by Julien Blondel.
Art & Colors by Didier Poli, Robin Recht & Jean Bastide.
“… the story you begin reading here is the saga of the Albino I would have written myself if I had thought of it first.”
In his introduction to this latest graphic novel adaptation of the Elric novels, Michael Moorcock, the original writer himself was obviously impressed enough to pen the above words. It’s easy to be cynical and slightly incredulous initially. Having read the book itself and previous comic book adaptations already, what new perspective could Blondel provide?
“The Priest & the Dragon: The October Incident: 1966 ” by Grant Morrison & Joe Quesada. | “The Miracleman Family: Seriously Miraculous” by Peter Milligan & Mike Allred.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
Alan Moore’s re-invention of the superhero genre with Marvelman/Miracleman was for me, akin to the Sex Pistols/Punk’s impact on rock music. This legacy is self-evident from reading the Marvel reprints of the Miracleman collected editions, which has thankfully brought the iconoclastic material to a new audience. Read some background here.
So what does Marvel do, to cash in? This highly dubious Annual – which features a Grant Morrison Kid Miracleman tale originally rejected by Moore (justifiably as it turns out!) for publication in Warrior magazine back in the day and a pointless Miracleman Family adventure done in retro style.
In bygone days, it was common for superheroes to be placed in life threatening situations with readers being confident that the hero would somehow escape the clutches of death. But that concept was first challenged in X-Men #137 (1980) when Jean Grey (aka Marvel Girl/Phoenix) took her own life in order to protect the universe from the Phoenix force that possessed her. In an unforgettable sequence, Jean Grey paid the ultimate price in order to save the universe.
If you watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you would have noted the use of the graphic novel Black Hole as a plot point, which is of course such a cool geek thing! Creator/artist Charles Burns will actually be in Seattle this Friday to sign copies of his latest book – Sugar Skull – which is the perfect opportunity for this lapsed comic book (and Black Hole) fan to get re-acquainted with the man’s work and to erm meet the man himself. Stay tuned for the obligatory photographs!
… still there’s more …