Belated Notes from Baltimore Comic-Con

Baltimore Comic-Con took place at the downtown convention center from September 7-9 this year, but I’m just now getting my thoughts down. This was the first year the show was three days, but my son and I could only attend the last day. There was a solid, but not overwhelming, crowd. So assuming the first two days were even better attended, the extended format was a success.

“A Celebration of Peter Mayhew”

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There certainly was a long, snaking line to into our first event for the day, Peter Mayhew’s talk. In part this was because it started a bit late, but it was worth it. Host Robert Greenberger kicked it off noting that he covered the Star Wars franchise for years while writing for Starlog, but this was his first time interviewing the man behind Chewbacca.

Mayhew’s story is begins with one of those amazing happenstances. He was working as a hospital orderly when someone took a gag photo of him standing 6’ 10” (not quite full grown yet) beside a 5’ 2” nurse colleague. The shot made a local newspaper and then got picked up all over England. It caught the eye of a filmmaker, who contacted Mayhew to offer him a job.

The job was the role of the live-action Minoton (a bronze minotaur) in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. So one day, he’s pushing the bed sheet cart in England and the next he’s in on a boat off Malta working with Ray Harryhausen. Mayhew had admired Harryhausen’s movies and said it was a thrill to serve as the translation piece between the live scenes and the master’s animations. Wearing a 60 inch fiberglass minotaur head, not so much of a thrill.

Apparently, someone from that film recommended Mayhew to George Lucas. Lucas took one look at him standing up and said “We’ve got him.” To prepare for Chewbacca, Mayhew said he studied the behavior of bears in the zoo. He thought the physicality and presence of such large animals would translate well to the character. Otherwise, he said he acted simply by natural reaction to the others. The character just engages when the head of his costume goes on. He says he has 100% mobility and visibility inside, though it is just as hot as you would imagine.

Toward the end, Greenberger asked him about his convention experiences. Turns out Mayhew met his wife at a con, so they have had a very positive effect on his life. Of all fans, he said Japanese con-goers are the most devoted. He has had some approach his table on their knees; others have wept when they met him. In Baltimore, we just gave him a standing ovation.

“A Wolverine Celebration”

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After wearing ourselves out on the show floor, we closed the day at the Wolverine panel. Hosted by Tom Brevoort, it was a big cast of Wolverine creators from the beginning to the current issue: Herb Trimpe, Joe Rubinstein, Charles Soule, Frank Tieri and Frank Cho.

Trimpe went back to the very start – drawing the first panel with Wolverine in it, in Hulk #180. He gave that page to a neighbor’s kid, because that was the kind of thing you did with original art back then. Recently, the grown kid re-discovered it, and engaged Trimpe’s agent to help sell it. The final auction price was $675,000, with decent chunks to Trimpe, the agent and the Hero Initiative, with a majority left to the seller. Amazing.

When asked about ther inspiration when creating the character, Tieri gave the best answer. He said the character emerges for him in the contrast with Sabretooth. Wolverine is defined by his struggle with his demons; Sabretooth is defined by his indulging those same demons. Tieri said this indulgence made Sabretooth his favorite character to write. (To which Cho quipped, “Write what you know.”)

Cho started his answer with another joke – he loves Wolverine “because he’s short like me.” Then he said that he had fallen in love with the character during Claremont’s X-men run, when Rubinstein was inking. Rubinstein said that he used Clint Eastwood faces as a model, at Frank Miller’s suggestion. Then he admitted that he was unaware at the time that his work was historic. Rubinstein didn’t know that his mini-series was the first solo Wolverine story. Someone told him years later (and now he gets invited to panels for it).

Charles Soule was the subject of constant ribbing about killing Wolverine. Finally, it got so constant that Brevoort had to admit that it was editorial’s decision, not Soule’s. Soule then told the story of how Tom and Alex Alonso asked him to lunch without saying what it was about. Then they threw the idea at him and asked for an approach. So they pitched him and then he immediately had to pitch them back. It worked out.

Brevoort noted the irony that he was involved considering that in his fan days he led a campaign against a rumored killing of Wolverine. He made posters of Wolverine saying to save the endangered species and calling Chris Claremont a ‘vicious killer.’ Now, he and other editors saw the death as a natural outgrowth of Cornell’s idea to take away Logan’s healing factor. He said you kill characters not as a gimmick, but because these stories are fundamental to the human experience.

Meeting Charles Soule

On a quick pass through the hall after, we stopped by Charles Soule’s table. He saw me looking at his Archaia book ‘Strange Attractors’ and asked if he could tell me about it. Sure. So he gives us a full sales pitch on the book, including some complimentary jokes about how smart my son and I must be. It’s not the kind of book I usually buy, but he was working so hard for that $20 that I had to give it to him. Given what has been published lately about creators not breaking even at their tables, I’m glad I did.

All in all, it was a very fun convention day. Just like last year, I meant to take more cosplay pictures but there was too much else going on. Of the few I got, only one turned out. Luckily, it was my favorite character of the day: Hail Mechagodzilla!

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The Long View or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Overpowered Hero in a Stupid Costume

On a recent Comic Vine podcast, @g_man, @inferiorego and @undeadpool were talking about changes to Wonder Woman’s costume over the years. At the moment when things happen like wardrobe disasters, power level tweaks or mix-ups with team rosters, it’s natural for us to grit our teeth. Maybe we shouldn’t bother.

Like Tony, I’m a geezer (term used with love). I bought Secret Wars comics off the spinner rack at Drug Fair for 75 cents and read them while riding my pet dinosaur back to our cave. I was an Avengers fan above all else. I particularly enjoyed Wonder Man. Boy, did he go through some costume challenges, from garish, Christmas colored monstrosities to tacky Safari suits. Sometime with glasses or goggles, others with ionic flux eyes blazing away. Teammates came and went around him through a revolving door that seemed to push my favorites out onto the street in front of Avengers Mansion on a regular basis.

In the last few months, I’ve re-read some of the runs of Avengers volume 1 that I collected as a kid. (If you haven’t done this, or haven’t done it lately, I recommend it.) I had such a different experience. When I see these changes happen across the issues now, they bring on a rush of nostalgic pleasure. It is much like details of a period movie. There’s Safari Simon, back when Jocasta was on the team. It brings a warm chuckle of recognition just like when you see the character with Flock of Seagull hair and parachute pants in an 80s movie.

None of these details affect whether the comics hold up over time, so they probably didn’t make much difference in whether the comics were “good” to begin with. What matters is whether the characters are relatable as people, whether their conflicts are engaging and whether the resolutions deliver on the expectations that both character development and rising action created. Comics that do this are awesome, regardless of power levels, line-ups and lapel widths.

Am I excited about Captain America’s current chin-strap headgear? Not exactly. But I’m pretty sure it will be fun in a decade or so. So if you’re irritated by Wonder Woman’s bathing suit, relax. It will bring you a smile later.

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Superman Kills Battalion of Japanese Troops (c. 1945)

I have often read about how the heroes of Golden Age comics were absorbed into wartime propaganda efforts. I’d seen old illustrations of Captain America socking it to Hitler or Tojo, but I had never encountered a full story from that era. Recently, I’ve been listening to the original radio episodes of Superman and was amazed by a story called The Sleeping Beauty from February 1945.

In the multi-episode saga, Superman and Jimmy Olsen fly to the jungles of South America, seeking to help friends save the hidden city of Illyria from evil forces that have taken over. It turns out that the evil leader is actually a Japanese spy and he is using the town as a focal point to launch an invasion in the Americas. Paratroops are jumping into the jungle in small numbers and form up outside Illyria to make a larger force. Superman finds one lost in the brush and takes him prisoner, speaking to him as if the soldier is personally responsible for Pearl Harbor and Bataan.

Later in the story, the spy (named Saki) is revealed and the town saved. Superman intimidates Saki into radioing for all the troops to gather in an open field before the front gates of Illyria. When they do, Superman starts to throw down large rocks on them, crushing the soldiers to death in bunches. Once they begin to scatter, we’re told Superman swoops in and starts “to mix it up with them hand-to-hand.” It’s clear from the context that this means Superman is beating the Japs to death with his fists. When Jimmy asks him about them later, he says “It’s no more than they deserved.”

Obviously this was a different time, when the U.S. was pulled together in a war effort that was unimaginably massive by today’s standards. Every American thought of themselves as part of World War II whether they were actual combatants or not. Also obviously, the laws and moral codes of war are quite different from the laws and morals of vigilante justice. So there’s plenty to separate these killings from our reaction to superhero killings today.

I’m currently rediscovering comics after decades away, so I’m curious. Are there examples of heroes participating as a lethal combatant in more recent wars? If so, has there been anything remotely similar to this – a hero acting spontaneously as a combatant on their own initiative?


In Praise of Cape and Cowl Creators

Like all comics readers, I’ve griped about the failings of various writers. Couldn’t they think of anything better than that last story? How could they not understand this character’s essence or that concept’s history? Powered up heroes, nasty villains, fight scenes -- how hard could it be?

Then I tried it, and thought again.

I got an idea for a piece of fan fiction. It is a series of interlocking episodes that I expect will form a novella-length piece by the time I finish. To keep it simpler for my first time out, I picked a relatively scarce-used set of characters – The Eternals. (OK, so I also picked them because I think they’re really cool.)

The intro went pretty well, but as soon as I got into the main action, I started to feel the walls of precedent closing in around me. I’d find myself thinking ‘I can’t have Makarri do that, it’s not consistent with his established character. The Reject could do that, but so far he’s not even in the story.’ Then I’d have a really great idea and write it for bit. Soon I’d realize it had been a great idea – back when they had it in the volume two limited series.

As I considered the problem, I realized that most imaginative fiction writers start by creating a new territory to work in. Asimov imagined a world filled with robots governed by three laws, and then spent a series of novels exploring that territory. Other science fictions begin with creating a set of races and their interplanetary political dynamics, and then set various conflicts into that territory to watch what happens. Sword and sorcery writers do it the most explicitly, physically drawing the maps of new continents to set their characters loose in.

For today’s superhero comic writers, this establishment of territory was done by the likes of Kane and Kirby anywhere from 40 to 75 years ago. Teams of creators have been wandering these landscapes for all the decades since then. It seems to me that today’s Marvel and DC creators are given a task analogous to finding the unexplored portion of Europe. That they consistently create engaging and enjoyable stories in this territory is impressive. That they sometimes still find stories that are original or surprising is down right amazing.

So will I stop complaining about the weaker plot points of my favorite comics? I doubt it. But I won’t do it with the feeling that I might do better anymore.

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Amplitude Modulation and the Man of Steel

"Superman is boring.” It’s a popular thing to say. And it is so obviously true. Superman’s run in comics and other major media has continued for seventy-five years. Only the boring characters stick around like that. The fascinating characters all disappear after a year or two, right? Sure.

It’s especially the boring characters that emerge from comics and make splashes in other media. Recently, I have been enjoying the beginning of that emergence – discovering the days of Superman serials on the radio. Thanks to Old Radio World, you can listen to 63 installments of “the exciting transcription feature – Superman!” here:

The shows date from 1940 to 1950 and each one runs 10 to 12 minutes, so they are easy bite-size listening for your IPod or in the car. Typically, it takes 4 or more installments to tell a complete story.

Getting my Superman from the radio gave me a greater appreciation for the power and economy of graphic storytelling. Radio, like fiction, has to conjure a mental picture rather than present a visual one. That can be awkward. I had never thought about the need for the catch-phrase Up… Up… And Away! The sound of wind alone wasn’t going to make a 1940s audience picture a man beginning to fly, though the sound effect could maintain the mental picture once the words got him up there.

Even more awkward are the landings. Down … Down… sounds very artificial but I can see why the writers felt it necessary. Each of Superman’s feats of strength similarly requires him to talk to himself, sometimes in the third person – “Got to bend these bars… That’ll do it” or “This stone wall is no match for Superman. Just need to put my shoulder into it…” After a few episodes, though, these contrivances blend in with the period charm of the voice acting and cease to be distracting.

Historically interesting is how much the Superman character (or at least editorial control of the character) is not fully formed. This Superman is committed to Justice and stops the bad guys. He’s presumably for the American Way, in that he protects institutions like town governments, the prisons and commerce. But Truth? Not so much.

Rather than the clever evasions we know from the comics, this Superman maintains his dual identity by telling lies ALL THE TIME. Superman lies about where Clark is. Clark lies about what Superman has done. He doesn’t offer dishonest stories initially, but when cornered by direct questions falsehood is his friend. I wonder what parents who were gathered with their kids around the RCA cabinet radio set in the living room thought about it.

Whatever the rough edges, the most important thing is that the stories are just plain fun. The dam is about to burst and wash away the town. The train is headed full speed into the path of a rock slide. Keno and the Wolf are planning to break jail, aided by the Yellow Mask. This is a job for Superman! Superhero portrayals have come a long way, both in comics and on the big screen. But even in these very early dramatizations, the fascination is already there. Nothing boring about it, then or now.

btw - I have no affiliation with Old Radio World. I just stumbled on it and think it's cool (especially since it's free).