Game Review: Diablo 3

Diablo 3 is out. But is it a game? Or is it the most brilliant money making scam in internet history?

Movie Review: The Avengers

Okay, okay, I posted my Avengers review. Get off my back already, geez.

The Most Important Comic Book You've Never Heard Of

Action Comics #1. Detective Comics #27. Why is All-American Men of War #89 as important as these great comics -- and why have you never heard of it?.

Tales From the Vault: Lois Lane #93

If you thought Superman was a total tool before, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Mass Effect 3: The Official Review

Mass Effect 3 isn't the end of the world, it just portrays it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Classic Comics Forum Podcast

Issue #0 of the Classic Comics Forum Podcast can be found here!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Breaking News: Joe Kubert Dead at 85

In recent years we've seen a lot of the great comic creators from the golden age pass into legend, but today's news hits particularly hard, as multiple sources are reporting that Joe Kubert has passed away.

He was 85.

Trying to sum up the career of Kubert is basically impossible, but suffice it to say that he began working in the 1940s and continued as a mainstay of the comic book industry right up until his passing. Best known for his great war comics, including Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace, Kubert also turned in fantastic work on Hawkman, both in the Golden Age and the Silver Age, as well as titles like Tarzan and literally too many others to mention.

Beyond his unequaled production as a artist and writer, however, his most enduring legacy may be as a teacher and inspiration thanks to The Kubert School, which began training comic books artists and cartoonists beginning in the 1970's. Dozens if not hundreds of pros passed through his courses.

And Kubert's art legacy was also passed down in a much more literal fashion through his sons, Andy and Adam Kubert, who are considered by many fans to be two of the top comic book artists of the past quarter century.

On a personal note, Kubert's death saddens me as I missed his final visit to Boston in 2010 due to a scheduling conflict. I very much wanted to attend so I could speak with him about his work at Lev Gleason alongside Charles Biro and Norman Maurer on Boy Comics. Kubert is the only artist other than Biro to draw a cover for Boy Comics and I wanted to ask him how that came about. Sadly for me, that opportunity is now lost forever.

And sadly for comics, one of the five greatest artists in the history of the medium is gone forever as well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The King and the Worst

Think "The Avengers" was fun? Did you enjoy the spectacle of "The Dark Knight Rises?" Do you think that superhero films have no where to go from here?

Well, guess what? That's right, I'm here to let you in on the internet's biggest secret, a short film that may in fact be the single greatest thing ever created by humanity, "The King and the Worst" -- a film that makes "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises" look like frozen crapsicles.

What is "The King and the Worst," you ask? Well, here's the synopsis in one sentence:

Jack Kirby and Ed Wood team up during World War II to battle Nazi sorcerers from a dimension of pure evil inside an ancient European fortress.

Read that again. And now get this: The film is entirely in Spanish, with really bad subtitles. And it's partially animated. And one of the main characters is... The Phantom Stranger.

The greatest thing in the history of man. Honestly. Just wantch it and let your life be changed forever:


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Game Review: Diablo 3

This is going to be an interesting experience for me, because my review of the new video game Diablo 3 isn't really going to have anything to do with the game itself. But that is fairly fitting, because with Diablo 3, Blizzard has delivered a product that has almost nothing to do with the game itself either.

Before we get into the meat of the review, then, let's get the game stuff out of the way: it's fine. It's fun even. Diablo 3 pretty much has everything Diablo 2 had, except with graphics and an interface that are a decade better. If you enjoyed playing Diablo 2, chances are you will enjoy playing Diablo 3, which is basically the greatest version of Gauntlet ever created. It's fine.

Unfortunately, though, creating a fun game just isn't enough for the folks at Blizzard these days, because instead they've created what is either a revolutionary new gaming model that will change how people play for the next decade or more, or they've created the ultimate online pyramid scheme. Or both.

At issue is a little thing you may already have heard about in regards to Diablo 3, namely the fact that you have to log into the Blizzard servers and play online even if you are playing a solo, single player campaign. There have been a lot of complaints about this and it received a lot of media coverage when the game was released last month, but after playing Diablo 3 for a few weeks, I can assure you that as far as Blizzard is concerned, this is definitely a feature and not a bug. And it also drives every single facet of the gaming experience.

That's because here's a deceptively simple reason Blizzard makes you play online: You can't really play the game otherwise. Blizzard has designed the game in such a way that even if you could play it offline, you couldn't, because at higher difficultly levels you are required to interact with other payers in one way or another to progress through the game. And they've brilliantly set this up so that most of that interaction takes place at the true heart of Diablo 3: The auction house.

See, in Diablo 3, unlike Diablo 2, equipment is randomly generated by the mobs when you kill them. That means that if you want to get a specific item, you cannot, say, do Baal runs over and over again until you get the drop, because the bosses in Diablo 3 have no set loot table. In English, this means that there's never any way of knowing what any monster you fight is going to drop.

And even if you did know, that knowledge would be useless because Blizzard has randomized the stats on all equipment drops. The upshot of this is that when you do get an item, it will have between 1 and 6 random stats from a possible chart of say 15-40 different effects; and each of these stats will then have a random numerical value between 1 and 250 or something.

As you can see, it's all incredibly random, which becomes a major problem when you want to actually get gear that is useful for your character. On lower difficulty levels, finding a piece of gear that boosts one of your stats modestly is enough to get through. But when you get to higher difficulty levels, you need to have gear with stats specifically catered to your character's build. And since finding gear with the exact stats you need is almost literally impossible, the only option players have is to turn to other players who have likewise been getting random equipment they can't use and trade or buy each other's stuff. Aka, the auction house.

Now, here's where things get really interesting. You see, ever since the days of Diablo 2 (and into Blizzard's other big game, World of Warcraft), players have bought and sold items (and gold) on the black market. This has always been technically against the terms of service and if you are caught you get banned, but thousands of players still do it all the time. With Diablo 3, however, Blizzard has decided to co-opt the black market by building it into the game and controlling it themselves, via the brilliantly insidious creation of the Real Money Auction House.

If you want to buy or sell an item for real money, then, you can do it right in game through secure systems that Blizzard has set up themselves. This removes the risk of getting your info stolen by some Chinese hacker. But more importantly, it also potentially makes a mound of money for Blizzard themselves, as they charge a flat $1 service fee for every transaction, along with a 15% additional fee if you sell items using PayPal.

So let's review: Diablo 3 is designed in a way that requires you to use the auction house, and every time you do, Blizzard takes a piece of the action. In essence, Blizzard has designed Diablo 3 in such a way that the entire player base becomes gold farmers working for Blizzard.

Of course, there are some benefits to this for the player. One of the main drawbacks of games like Diablo -- and to a lesser extent MMOs such as World of Warcraft -- is that there's no real purpose to anything. Once you've finished the story of Diablo 3, you can go through it again on higher difficulty levels, but essentially when you buy or find better equipment, there's no actual point to it. Because the only thing having better equipment does is allow you to go through the game easier and quicker... in order to find more equipment. It can be fun, but it's also a pointless, closed loop that eventually becomes tiresome.

The Real Money Auction House, on the other hand, removes this problem in part, because now there is a reason to keep playing to find that better equipment: You can sell it for real American cash on the auction house. Which in a way is an even more brilliant fact from Blizzard's perspective; after all, you have a highly addictive game franchise played by a population known for obsession and then you add to it the possibility of actually making money for playing?

This does affect gameplay in some unexpected ways as well, though. Previously, when you found equipment in a game that you didn't personally need, you would almost always sell it for gold or trade it to other players in order to acquire equipment that you do need. And you can still do this via the regular, gold based auction house in Diablo 3. However, let's say you find some great Monk shoulders, but you are playing a Demon Hunter. Are you going to want to use this to buy a better bow for yourself? Or do you sell the item for real money instead?

Here's a real life example: Yesterday I got lucky and found a legendary helmet called Andariel's Refuge. I was playing on my 59 Barbarian, but I also have a 54 Witch Doctor whom I don't play very much and for whom this helmet was a huge upgrade. So what do I do? Sell it for gold and buy something awesome for by Barbarian? Give it to my Witch Doctor? Or sell it for real money?

Obviously, I sold it for real money, making a cool $10.61 as just a side effect of doing something I was already doing just for fun anyway. And it's an obvious but true fact: once you start making real money for playing a fun game you were already enjoying, it becomes much more enticing to play more and continue playing. In the first week of the RMAH, I cleared just over $30 -- and that was just from stuff I either had sitting around my vault or that I found while leveling up alts, without any dedicated farming involved at all.

But is that a good thing in terms of either Diablo 3 being a good game or the future of gaming itself? Because, make no mistake, if Blizzard ends up making as much money off of this as they seem poised to do, the industry is going to take notice. For instance, that $10.61 I received for the helm was only after Blizzard had already skimmed $2.88 off the top for themselves. And that's just one transaction out of what is probably thousands and thousands every day. Once the money starts rolling in -- Blizzard hasn't yet implemented stuff like buying materials, gold and even characters, which they are going to add later -- how long to you think it's going to take for Blizzard to implement a RMAH in WoW, for instance? And if it does become a successful model, that means you can look forward to a whole new generation of games that, like Diablo 3, are designed from top to bottom around the auction house rather than around, you know, actually making a good game.

It's kind of fun. It's fairly addictive. It's almost satisfying. But is Diablo 3 a good thing for games and gamers?

One thing for sure: It's a great thing for Blizzard's bottom line.

My Grades: As a game it gets an N/A because Diablo 3 isn't really a game at all. As perhaps the most well-crafted way to harness the earning power of gamers and trick millions of players into becoming free labor, it gets either an A+ or an F- depending on your outlook.

Movie Review: The Avengers

Now, some of you have probably been wondering why I haven't posted a review of The Avengers yet. And the answer is pretty simple: I've been too busy seeing The Avengers over and over again for the past several weeks to write about it. But now that I've finally exhausted my life savings buying disposable 3-D glasses, I've found a little free time to write up a review for you. You're welcome.

Before we get into the details, let me put out a disclaimer: The Avengers has been my favorite comic book series since 1986. It's no exaggeration, therefore, to say that I have been waiting for over a quarter of a century for this movie to come out. So I am not an unbiased viewer. On the one hand, this means that I am predisposed to like The Avengers, assuming they do it right. On the other hand, I am also probably a lot pickier than your normal moviegoer as this material is close to my heart. So you can consider those facts when reading my review.

Because, honestly, I loved the damn thing. It might not have been perfect, but it was as close to perfect as I could possibly have hoped. And not only is it an excellent comic book movie, it's also an excellent summer popcorn movie. You'd think those things would naturally go together, but often they really kinda don't.

So what works with The Avengers? Well, let's start with the basic concept, which is probably the trickiest part to pull off. After all, Marvel has been carefully (some would say ponderously, slowly and tediously) laying the groundwork for The Avengers for years, setting up plot threads in every one of their previous films. That sort of thing could lead to an exposition heavy, continuity clogged data dump and could easily derail the entire film.

Instead, director Joss Whedon and company manage to intertwine all the elements and all the characters as seamlessly and organically as the situation allows for. And the result of that is that, while knowing all those earlier bits of setup help make The Avengers a more interesting experience, being up to speed on every niggling detail isn't necessary at all to enjoy the film. In other words, it stands on its own.

Much of that credit, of course, has to go to the cast, which is uniformly excellent. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans, as the leads of individual franchises, are very strong, as they each manage to maintain the integrity of their character while still fitting into the smaller role called for by the team environment. It's a tricky balance that everyone manages to pull off just right.

Even better, though, are Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner as Black Widow and Hawkeye, characters who could have been throwaway space fillers but who instead manage to come to life and be vital pieces of the Avengers puzzle. And best of all is Mark Ruffalo, who somehow actually made me enjoy a Hulk appearance, which I literally did not think was possible. Ruffalo's wry and bone dry humor was a perfect match to the character here and worked superbly within the context of the team.

The upshot of all of this is that The Avengers doesn't just satisfy all the expectations that were created by the years of buildup in Marvel's previous films, it actually justifies Marvel's previous films. Iron Man 2, for instance, felt at the time like a bit of a bloated mess, with a bunch of Avengers stuff shoehorned into the action to the detriment of the film. Now, however, it retroactively gains entertainment value thanks to The Avengers.

Not that redeeming their few missteps is Marvel's primary goal here; entertainment is the top priority, while setting up even bigger future blockbusters is clearly a close second. Which may be the best news of all about The Avengers, because if you liked this one, well, trust me: There's going to be a whole hell of a lot more where this came from.

My Grades: The film as a whole gets an incoherent fanboy squee, which roughly translates to an A+. All of the actors get an A, with the exceptions of Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston, who both get an A++; and Scarlett Johansson, who was mostly really good but did flatline a couple of bits, so I'm just going to give her an A-. The post-credits teaser for the upcoming Avengers arc gets an I for incomplete only because the character teased has had far more crappy appearances than great ones, so even though Marvel has a really strong track record, I'm still not entirely sold yet. But here's hoping.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

May Answers From the Vault

Welcome back to a very special edition of Answers From the Vault. Why is this edition even more special than all previous special editions? Well, it's because these questions were pretty much all unsolicited. Don't worry, though, they aren't so much of an annoyance that I won't answer them. Let's get right to it and help expand your mind!

Why would my 17-year-old students be involved in a bordering-on-scathing battle about the ending of ME3? - Professor Chesley Wendth

Thanks for the question, Chesley. The basic answer is simple: Because anyone who plays Mass Effect 3 is obligated to get in an argument about the ending. It's one of the unwritten rules of the internet, at least, it was until I just wrote it. 

I covered this briefly in my review of Mass Effect 3, but basically, the entire series is designed around the premise that the player's actions dictate the story, so whatever you decide has major ramifications on how everything plays out. However, while there are technically something like 16 different endings to Mass Effect 3 -- and thus to the entire series -- they are all almost entirely identical. So some angry gamers feel the ending betrays the entire premise of the series and invalidates their 100+ hours of gameplay.

On the other hand, I didn't mind the ending. It may be nit picking to the point of semantics, but the choices you make at the end do drastically effect the Mass Effect universe, you just don't get to actually see it. At the end you have three choices, each of which determines the fate and future of the entire universe in very different ways. For whatever reason, though, BioWare doesn't actually show the ramifications of that choice. Which is annoying and weird. But even though the game plays out as if your choice didn't make a difference, I still feel like the ending upholds the spirit of the story. Affecting the future of the universe is about as big a choice as you could make, after all.

I can understand why some people are pissed, though, as it doesn't provide the kind of clarity fans are used to. It's kind of like the ending of Inception; something big happens, but you have to decide what it was yourself.

Why can Superman shoot lasers out of his eyes? - Avery Houle

Thanks for the question, Avery. Superman, as you may know, is from a planet called Krypton, which is on the other side of the galaxy. Unlike our world, Krypton had a red sun instead of a yellow sun. When Superman arrived on Earth, he discovered that the energy from a yellow sun gives him super powers, which is why he can fly, lift heavy objects and do everything else Superman does.

Because he gets his powers form the sun, Superman is essentially a living solar battery. Just like solar panels on a house, Superman absorbs sunlight and turns it into energy. And since lasers are basically focused beams of light and energy, Superman's heat vision is actually the one power of his that makes the most sense; he's simply channeling all the solar energy he collected and shooting it out of his eyeballs.

After watching Justice League Doom the other day I have a late question for The Vault: Because Bane's exposed rubber tubes make him the most vulnerable super villain in the DC Universe, why doesn't he cover them up with a metal case or something? The whole setup seems kinda stupid. - Rob Lettrick

Good question, Rob. I'd like to say it's because Bane is a moron, but he's actually portrayed as being a super genius. So why doesn't he use his big brain to come up with a better outfit? I'd say because he arrogant enough that he doesn't much care if his tubes get yanked out. The tubes, after all, just feed him the venom drug that gives him his super powers. Without those, however, he's still a genius who has trained his whole like in fighting and other disciplines -- in other words, if his tubes get pulled, he becomes Batman. And Batman does okay.

In the comics, before New 52 erased everything, Bane had apparently stopped using the drug a while ago, meaning the tubes no longer do anything at all. So that's another reason I guess.

I would say that Bane isn't the most vulnerable supervillain in DC, though. That honor probably goes to the Doom Patrol's arch-nemesis The Brain, who is literally just a human brain in a glass jar.

Other then Nick Fury has any other character gone through a race change and did Marvel ever address it? - Ben Milton

This is a timely question, Ben, so thanks. There have been a number of characters who have had race changes similar to Nick Fury's and most have them have happened the same way: In an alternate or new universe. DC, for instance, recently added some ethnic highlights to some of its established characters in the New 52 universe, while Marvel has tweaked other classic characters in their Ultimates universe, much like Nick. Most of these don't really need much explanation other than "it's a different universe."

There are two other types of race changes that happen in comics, though, First, there's the type where a character is replaced by someone of a new race. Examples of this include Blue Beetle at DC (who was killed and replaced by a new Hispanic Blue Beetle) and Ultimate Spider-Man (who again was killed and replaced by a Hispanic kid). it's not really the same thing, of course, as it's a whole new character, but it happens fairly regularly as comic companies try to add diversity without actually coming up with new ideas.

The more interesting -- and by interesting I mean horribly hilarious -- type of race change is when an established character suddenly changes races as part of a storyline designed to highlight "race issues." Sort of a cross between Black Like Me and Batman; maybe you could call this Black Lightning Like Me syndrome. This has happened at least a coupe times I can think of off the top of my head. Punisher, for instance, had a storyline where he went under cover as a black dude, mainly as a way to try out a new street-thug version of Luke Cage.

That was embarrassing. On the other hand, the most famous story like this, from Lois Lane #106, was trying to actually seriously explore racial issues in the early 1970's. They ended up putting Lois in a machine that turned her black for 24 hours, where she then discovered the plight of the African American and delivered some timely lessons on racism to the reader. It's just as bizarre as it sounds, topped off by the amazing fact that the story is called "I Am Curious Black," which of course is a reference to one of the most famous pornos of all time.

The 70's!!!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

April Answers From the Vault

Welcome back to another edition of Answers From the Vault. You may recall that last week I canvassed the vast Vault community for questions, queries and general mysteries of the comic book world, all in the name of providing you with the most kick-ass clump of knowledge ever to be dumped in your grill. After receiving over ten trillion questions, though, I narrowed it down to just two worthy of answering. So without further ado, let's all embiggen our brains and get some fresh Answers From the Vault.

Can you think of a creative team's run that would have worked better if attached to another project? For instance, I liked Karl Kesel's Daredevil run, but it might have been better as a Spider-Man run. Erik Larsen's Defenders run was pretty bad, but might have worked better if he was doing it attached to the revamped Heroes for Hire book. And actually, come to think of it, that HfH run (was it an Ostrander book?) would probably have worked better in the Defenders. -- Mark

Thanks for the question Mark. The answer is no, I can't think of any. Next question!

No, just kidding. The funny thing these days is that mainstream superhero comics have become so self-referential that a lot of writers seem to be writing archetypes more than actual characters. Maybe that's just the influence of Alan Moore and Watchmen, but because of this, there are a lot of books that could pretty much have the characters completely swapped without any real effect on the stories at all. And that's not even getting into characters that are specifically created as proxies for other characters, such as Planetary.

Plus, with DC's New 52 and the constant shakeups at Marvel, characters are being reinvented so frequently that it's hard to really figure out what stories make sense for a character anymore anyway. For instance, in terms of traditional Marvel, there's no question that Bendis' New Avengers would have made more sense as a Defenders series, specifically post-Civil War. At that point the team was underground, doing either street level stuff or combating secret menaces the rest of the superhero community was ignoring, with a roster comprised of Wolverine, Spider-Man, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange and Hawkeye. That's the Defenders, people, even if it has an Avengers logo on the front in order to boost sales.

But having said all that, I'll say that while I absolutely love Ed Brubaker's Captain America, it really reads more like a modern day SHIELD series than a traditional Cap superhero story. I can't say it would have worked better as a SHIELD story per se, since it worked so darn well as it was, but it would arguably have worked about the same if the lead was Nick Fury instead of Cap.

What are the 5 Worst Resurrections in comics? I would have to think Aunt May's return would have to top the list. Is there a worse one? -- David Wright

Thanks for the question, David. At this point, death is essentially meaningless in mainstream superhero comics, to the point where it's pretty hard to narrow it down. Off the top of my head, though, here are a few really egregious examples, including Aunt May:

1. Aunt May -- Officially killed the concept of development in comics, specifically in the Spideyverse. Good buy character progress, hello neverending stasis.

2. Captain Marvel -- This gets a special mention, because his return fromt he dead was retconned away before they even explained it. During Civil War, Captain Marvel showed up, suddenly alive again even though The Death of Captain Marvel is one of the most famous, acclaimed and beloved comics of all time. But no matter, even that can't stand up to the fact that Marvel has to publish a comic called Captain Marvel every so often to retain their trademark. so they came up with this asinine story where Captain Marvel was transported forward through time from before the moment of his death, meaning he was now alive in the present only knowing he would eventually have to go back and die.

The worst thing about this, though, was after hyping this up as some kind of giant event -- Mar-Vell is back!!! -- and publishing a one-shot to return him from the grave, a couple months later they just said, "oh, that was a skrull. Just kidding." It was hands down the most blatantly manipulative scam Marvel's ever run, because they knew in advance that this story wasn't his return at all, but they hyped it up anyway to sell a bunch of comics. Just a complete fraud perpetrated on the comics community. An all-time low point for Marvel. The comic itself sucked, the idea sucked, the reasons for publishing it sucked and the liars and con men who called themselves Marvel's editorial staff sucked most of all. What a joke.

3. The Green Goblin -- Hey, there goes three decades of continuity out the window. Because Spidey doesn't have any other good villains they could use instead, right?

4.  Mockingbird -- Okay, this is maybe just me. But Bendis spent years putting Hawkeye through the ringing, killing him off, resurrecting him in an alternate universe, leaving him somewhat morose and dealing with existential angst. It's not where I would go with the character, but it at least opened the door for some new character development. And then, after all that set-up, instead of exploring any of that they instead brought back Mockingbird in Secret Invasion so they could try and revert to a mid-80's status quo that nobody was a fan of anyway! Except for one guy who happened to be a writer at Marvel. It's just asinine.

5. Barry Allen -- See above. Don't get me wrong, I like Barry, but he was dead for a quarter of a century and nobody under the age of 55 wanted him back. Wally West is one of the most popular and successful "replacement" superheroes in comics history and is still much more popular than Barry Allen. I have to think they did this because of some kind of future movie tie-in. But then again, the fact that they made such a big deal about this to the point of building entire crossover events around his return, only to scrap the entire DCU before the story was even finished, kind of shows how little direction anybody at DC has these days.

You'll note the absence of two characters from this list, namely Jean Grey and Bucky. I don't think Jean Grey should have been brought back form the dead and in many ways her return is the key moment where death stopped having any meaning in comics for all time. But I still have to give her a bit of a pass because she was, after all, the Phoenix. Returning form the dead is an inherent part of being the Phoenix. Bucky, on the other hand, gets a pass because the story has totally been worth it. I know, it surprised me too, but Winter Soldier has become one of my favorite Marvel characters and Burbaker continues to do great stories with him. And that's what it's all about after all.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ask the Vault!

I have failed you, oh, my people. I know that for the last year and a half you have had questions, many questions, about comic books, movies, video games and whatever the hell else. Burning questions that only I can answer. And yet, I have been unavailable, leaving you in the dark, forced to fumble along like so many blind fish at the bottom of an ancient aqueduct.

But no more! Yes, it's the moment you've been waiting over a year and a half for: the return of Ask the Vault!

Here's how it works: You cask me any question you can think of and once I have accumulated all the queries, I will answer them all, or at least those that allow me to sound pithy.

So if you have any questions, pose them now, either by posting in the comments section of on my Facebook feed. Because the dark age of ignorance is over -- and the age of answers has at last arrived!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Most Important Comic You've Never Heard Of

Earlier this month I purchased a comic book that most people have never heard of, but which has had an important role in shaping both and pop culture and the development of art in the 20th and 21st century. It's impact on culture is arguably up there with Action #1 or Detective Comics #27. Yet while those other comics are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, I was able to pick up this 50 year old classic for just $4.50 thanks to its total -- and ironically apt -- obscurity.

The comic in question? All-American Men of War #89.

All-American Men of War was, along with sister titles like Star Spangled War Stories, Our Fighting Forces and Our Army at War, one of DC's many classic war titles. These flourished during the 1950's and 60's but fell out of favor during the Vietnam War, with most of them ending by the early or mid 1970's; the final issue of All-American Men of War, #117, came out in 1966.

All-American Men of War #89, which hit stands with a cover date of February, 1962, is a typical issue of the series. It features three stories, each involving the air force during a different war -- World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The middle of these stories features the series' star at the time, Lt. Johnny Cloud, The Navajo Ace. The stories are interesting and competent but not particularly noteworthy.

There is one thing of note, though: In keeping with DC policy of the day, there are no story or art credits given. And it is this fact that helped create the anonymity which the issue and others like it has languished in to this day. Because, thanks to the seemingly anonymity of not just the artists but the art itself, nobody really batted an eye when that art was lifted whole, appropriated, repackaged and sold as what would become one of the most important art movements of the second half of the 20th century.

I'm talking, of course, about Roy Lichtenstein and the Pop Art movement. While just about nobody alive has ever even heard of All-American Men of War #89, Lichtenstein's works and aesthetic have been studied for decades in schools and displayed in art galleries. Other than hardcore comic book fans and art historians, though, few people realize that most of Lichtenstein's works, major and minor, were not the product of his imagination but were rather taken directly out of actual comic books -- swiped from other artists, blown up to canvas size and presented as original works.

Much of this, of course, has to do not only with the perception of comics as low art -- a perception that continues today -- but to the belief that the art in those comics was a disposable commodity, mass produced by some faceless worker turning out page after page in assembly line fashion. And in a way, that's true to a point; many of the artists themselves felt their art was just that, disposable, just a way to make a living while they pursued "real" art on the side.

But while Andy Warhol, king of Pop Art, was busy taking his inspiration from actual mass produced images, altering things like the Campbell's Soup can as commentary on modern culture, Lichtenstein's art was being taken from art designed and executed as art by other artists. And while the comics themselves may not have had credits listing those artists, the artists themselves were certainly aware of Lichtenstein's appropriations and the fact that Lichtenstein was becoming incredibly wealthy and gaining worldwide fame by selling copies of art they themselves had been paid often less than a couple hundred bucks for. And for which they would never receive any recognition.

All-American Men of War is one of the prime examples of this process due to the fact that Lichtenstein appropriated (some say outright stole) not one, but at least five different images for use in his work. The most famous of these comes from the aforementioned Lt. Johnny Cloud story, which is titled "The Star Jockey."

In this tale, Johnny Cloud relays a story from his childhood, when a shaman gave him a spirit vision that revealed to him a scene of his own future when he would fly fighter planes. In his vision, he sees a dogfight where the Nazis appeared to him as flaming stars in the sky. Later in the story, he shoots down an enemy fighter and it explodes in a brilliant fireball, causing Johnny to remember his earlier vision:

Art fans will probably recognize this right away as one of Lichtenstein's most famous paintings, and probably his most famous non-romance painting. Titled "Whaam!," this painting was completed in 1963:

Just how much "Whaam!" is worth today is hard to say, as the Tate Museum purchased it in 1966. But we can get a good sense based on sales of other Lichtenstein paintings that have sold recently, such as "I Can See the Whole Room! ... and There's Nobody in It!," which sold last November at a Christie's auction for $45 million.

The original art that was used to create "Whaam!" was done by an artist named Irv Novick, who as I mentioned was not credited in the actual comic book. Did this fact play a role in Lichtenstein's apparent belief that it was unnecessary to give credit to Novick?

An interesting sidebar comes from an anecdote whose origin I'm afraid I no longer have attribution for. It seems, however, that when Lichtenstein became a huge star in art world during the early and mid 1960's, thanks in large part to early works such as "Whaam!," a number of the artists he swiped from were quite upset. Lichtenstein ended up meeting a large group of them and explained that he had never expected his stuff to take off and he was just as surprised as they were; he was just a starving artist who got lucky. Charmed, the other artists decided not to press the issue.

On the other hand, we also have the story of Russ Heath, a comic book legend who (unlike Novick) is still alive. Recently Heath conducted some interviews that coincided with a drive to try and raise money to cover his escalating health care costs because, as an artist, he had no pension or health coverage to speak of. In the interview, Heath explained that on more than one occasion he invited Lichtenstein to dinner, but was turned down on each occasion. For me, it paints (perhaps unintentionally) a picture of an artist who doesn't want to acknowledge where his fame and fortune truly come from. Was he embarrassed by the fact that he was making millions of dollars while the artists he appropriated works from remained unknown and sometimes living in poverty? Was he covering it up in order to preserve his own image?

Heath, as it happens, is another artist who contributed to All-American Men of War #89. His story is the third in the issue; set during the Korean War, he depicts a dogfight between a young pilot desperate to become an ace and his communist attackers. At one point the pilot tries a desperate maneuver and drops a bomb on a plane cutting beneath him. The bomb blows up the plane, as shown in this scan from the great site Deconstructing Lichtenstein, which chronicles Lichtenstein's extensive swiping:

This image was later used to create Lichtenstein's painting "Blam!"

And that's just the tip of the iceberg for Heath's contributions to Lichtenstein's ascent in the art world. Another panel of Heath's from the same story was used on the cover of All-American men of War #89, re-intepreted by cover artist Jerry Grandenetti -- which makes Lichtenstein's work "Jet Pilot" (inset) a copy of a copy:

And two more Heath panels from the same story (!) were also used by Lichtenstein, for "Brattata" and "Okay, Hot Shot," the images of which can be seen here and here.

The artistic merits of Lichtenstein's work as compared to the originals can be debated. Many comic fans feel that the original art is better executed and better drawn than Lichtenstein's copies, but this seems partially intentional to me, as Lichtenstein flattened out the images as part of his commentary on pop art. Likewise, his brighter colors and mostly his greatly expanded scale create a far different visceral impression than the small images found in the comic itself.

A more pressing question for me and many others, though, isn't whether Lichtenstein the artist has merit on his own rights but rather whether Lichtenstein the man did the right thing. And though I only know what I have read second hand, to me he failed epically in this. While he was making money hand over fist and earning accolades from art critics and historians around the globe, the artists whose works he was feeding off of remained toiling away in obscurity. That obscurity and their financial burden could have been greatly changed merely by Lichtenstein acknowledging their contributions to his work. Yet he did not, even while continuing to turn out image after image knowlingly and purposely pilfered from the artists of the comic book world.

Simply by providing proper credit, Lichtenstein could have given artists like Novick and Heath a whole new world of opportunity by highlighting their work on a world stage. The money they could have made just from commissions alone would have likely prevented the spectacle of Heath, in his mid-80's, having to search for work online to pay his medical bills. Yet Lichtenstein kept the credit and the spoils for himself.

And maybe that's the true importance of All-American Men of War #89. Because beyond the fact that it directly led to an entire art movement, it also now stands as an object lesson and warning for any artist in any field. Not to mention a condemnation, in my eyes, of the art world. Can you imagine what it must have been like for these artists to watch as someone copied their work and was hailed as a genius while their own art was still derided as cheap junk for kids? For me, it's a reminder to judge things for yourself, for what they are; and to give credit to those who deserve it, not those who ask for it.

So there's the story of All-American Men of War #89, the most important comic book that you've never heard of, a comic that in its own way influenced culture as much as Action #1 or Detective Comics #27 but which, unlike those, commands no premium on the back issue market and is sought after by no one other than the hardest of hardcore war comic fanatics. And if it seems both ironic and somehow fitting that All-American Men of War #89 should be as forgotten and overlooked as the artists whose works fill its pages, well, it is.

Fitting, but hardly fair.

(note: It should be mentioned that Lichtenstein's swiping -- what some comics fans would call outright thievery by art world con man -- is hardly limited to his war paintings or All-American Men of War #89. Indeed, nearly every single one of his works was taken directly from another artist's work, usually at DC, including his famous romance paintings. The Deconstructing Lichtenstein site has carefully uncovered dozens and dozens of instances both in the war and romance comics as well as from other sources. Oh, and that painting "I Can See the Whole Room! ... and There's Nobody in It!" that sold for $45 million last year? It was a straight up copy of a panel done by artist William Overgard for the comic strip Steve Roper, as seen in this inset, again by David Barsalou and his Deconstructing Lichtenstein website.)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tales From the Vault: Lois Lane #93

Welcome back to another gripping installment of Tales From the Vault, where we read comics so you don't have to. Or something like that. So what's on the docket today? How about a prime example of some Silver Age superdickery, courtesy of Lois Lane #93, guest starring Wonder Woman? Grab your kryptonite and cinch up your red underpants, because this one is a doozy.

And don't forget to click on the images to enbiggen them.

Details: This issue of Lois Lane (technically, the series is titled Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane, but I refuse to use that title for reasons that are about to become obvious) has a cover date of July, 1969. The comic doesn't have any credits, because DC was really into the whole corporate factory thing at this point, but it's by writer Robert Kanigher and artists Irv Novick and Mike Esposito. Anyone who knows Kanigher has a pretty good idea of the madness that is about to ensue, so it's probably just as well they didn't scare the kids by putting his name on the first page.

Synopsis: First off, this issue came out during the short-lived I-Ching era of Wonder Woman, which for those of you who aren't Chinese means the brief period when Wonder Woman lost all of her super powers, got rid of her costume and fought crime using amazing kung-fu taught to her by her blind Asian mentor I-Ching. That's a real thing. I did not just make that up.

So, to the story: Wonder Woman is in Metropolis to help Superman out by performing with him in the circus. Finally, someone realized what a freak that alien tool is. Or, actually, it's for charity. Naturally, Lois is on hand to cover the story for the Daily Planet, and just as naturally she immediately becomes insanely jealous to the point of having nightmares about the possibility of Wonder Woman stealing her man. Here's a tip, Lois: If he can be stolen, he's not really your man. Think about it.

Anyway, Perry White loves the article so much that he assigned her to follow Wonder Woman and Superman around. This plan goes wrong right away as it's clear that Superman is, in fact, falling for Wonder Woman. So she tags around behind them like a lame duck while they do things like try on wigs at Wonder Woman's boutique (don't ask) and go dancing at a hippie night club. No, really:

In fact, Superman gets so into the dancing that he accidentally uses his super speed and sets the dance floor on fire. Now that's cutting a rug. Anyway, irritated by the gathering crowd, he and Wonder Woman fly off to enjoy themselves in private, ditching Lois in the process, who can only watch forlornly as they fly off - something that will happen more than once in this comic (foreshadowing!).

Lois, though, is made of sterner stuff, so she decides to fight for her man. Literally: She hires a judo and karate expert to train her. And after a super cool training montage, where Lois becomes a martial arts master, she's ready to challenge Wonder Woman. Oh, it's on!

Unfortunately for Lois, Wonder Woman without her powers is still Wonder Woman, so she immediately decks Lois, throwing her ass-over-teakettle, slamming her into the ground and then pimp-slapping the hell out of her, all while Superman perches on a rock and has the time of his life, no doubt concealing a super-boner as the ladies catfight for his love. You'll want to click on this to see it in all it's... glory:

Honestly, it's downright disturbing. Here's a closeup of his face as he watches the fight:

Nothing gives him as much pleasure as seeing Lois get beat to a pulp. Think I'm exaggerating his super-assholitude? Check out the end of the fight where, unable to walk, Lois crawls on her hands and knees, literally praying for Superman's love. His response? He flies off with Wonder Woman again, leaving Lois broken, bloodied and lying in the dirt:

As it happens, though, Lois still has an ace up her sleeve. See, all along Superman has told her that he can't marry her ever because, as a normal human, she would be an easy target for villains bent on revenge. And since Wonder Woman has no powers any more, it means Superman can't marry her. Which is why Lois is so shocked and horrified when Wonder Woman suddenly saves an exploding NASA rocket using flight, invulnerability and super strength. How? Why? WHYYYYYYYYYY?!

Well, it doesn't matter why, because now that Wonder Woman has powers again, it's a done deal: Superman proposes and she accepts. Better yet, Lois gets the assignment to cover the wedding, so she has to trail around behind Wonder Woman while Diana shops for her wedding dress. And she's totally bitchy about it too, delivering the stone cold line "Now you can come and watch me shop!" when Lois asks if she can instead get a look at Wonder Woman's new mansion.

Lois isn't the best reporter in Metropolis for nothing, though. She figures something must be up. And sure enough, she quickly (well, it's page 18, so not that quickly) uncovers the truth. Sneaking over to Wonder Woman's new mansion, she discovers the real Wonder Woman locked in a basement cell. Turns out the Wonder Woman who has been wooing Superman is actually a Kryptonian imposter, escaped from the Phantom Zone. But before Lois can rescue Diana, the fake Wonder Woman returns, and, after declaiming her origin, blasts Lois with a disintigrator ray.

Except! Superman flies in out of nowhere and destroys the ray gun before she can fire it. Then he frees Diana and Lois and shunts the villainess off to the Phantom Zone. So how did Superman know what was going on? Was the whole charade a clever plot on his part to uncover her evil scheme?

Well, no. Turns out he happened by totally by chance. See, he was looking for Lois to tell her he had decided not to marry Wonder Woman after all. So for those keeping score, everything Superman did in this issue -- acting like the biggest a-hole in the universe, two-timing with Wonder Woman and then proposing to her -- it was all totally real, because Superman had NO IDEA she was an imposter. And forget about how crappy Lois must feel about all this, imagine how totally awkward Superman's next conversation with Wonder Woman must have been. "Wait, you fell in love with 'me?' And you got engaged to someone you thought was me? Did you guys, like... do it? You know what, I don't even want to know."

Really, how creepy is that?


Extras: There's a letter from DC in the back of the book explaining why they had to raise their price from 12 cents to 15 cents. It had been a dime since issue #30, but it would only be 20 issues before the price was raised again with #112. There's also a full page ad with a bunch of comic book covers and a giant blurb that says "Dynamite's Coming!" in huge letters. What does that mean? Who the hell knows. I'm guessing they were just trying to think of words that started with D and C.

My Grades: For sheer WTFness, this issue gets a solid A. Superman, on the other hand, gets an F for being the worst "boyfriend" ever and just for being a gigantic douchenozzle. Lois is a toss up; on the one hand she shows guts and gumption, as usual, battling Wonder Woman in hand to hand combat. On the other hand, she's still in the lovelorn fool mode DC stuck her in for pretty much all of the 1950's and 60's. So I'm giving her an Incomplete. I-Ching Wonder Woman, though, is tops, so she gets an A for not kicking Superman right in the junk when she found out he was banging her doppelganger. Even though I would pay a lot of money to see that happen -- the kick part, not the banging part.

Free Lois!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Video Game Review: Mass Effect 3

So, where was I?

Oh yeah, reviewing things all up in there. And this time around we've got something pretty epic to review, namely Mass Effect 3, which came out earlier this month after years of build up -- and, according to many sources, provided a great deal of let down.

With that in mind I'm going to cut right to the chase and address the controversy over the ending of the game. For those of you who don't sleep with a controller under your pillow, some fans were upset -- and extremely vocal about it -- over the ending because they felt that, after three games worth of being able to affect every aspect of game play with your decisions, nothing you do at the end has any consequence.

Now, this is not an entirely unwarranted complaint, because, without getting into too many spoilers, all three of the possible end scenarios feature nearly identical build-ups and epilogues. However, at the risk of getting too semantic on y'all, I didn't really have such a big issue with this because while it's true that your decisions don't affect game play much at he end, they do have a huge effect on the future of the Mass Effect universe. It's simply that none of those affects are actually shown to the player.

Granted, I might be splitting hairs, because either way your actual playing experience is going to be nearly identical no matter what you chose at the end. But within the context of the story, your choice literally decides the fate of every living being and civilization in the entire galaxy. And for me, I was into the story -- the feel of the universe -- so much that knowing my decision had such massive consequences was enough, even though I couldn't actually see any of those consequences in-game.

Honestly, I'm not sure that makes any sense, but the bottom line is that while I do wish BioWare had spent a little more time giving us unique endings for each decision so that the experience felt more complete, what they did give us was epic enough for my tastes anyway.

That's because, before you get to the ending, you do have to make major choices that, even if they don't change the ending, drastically change the gaming experience both for the player and for the main character. Like the both the Dragon Age games and the previous Mass Effect games, BioWare has crafted a game that makes you think about the consequences and potential consequences of your actions more than any other game I've ever played.

And the ending aside, those consequences are often dire and permanent. Again, without giving too many spoilers, there was one decision in particular that I had to agonize over and after seeing the terrible consequences of my decision, I felt compelled to replay the previous 45 minutes of the game in order to choose a different option. BioWare must hold the record for the most extended pauses in gaming history, because I often found myself staring at a menu, unable to decide whether to cut off my left hand of my right foot. Sometimes no matter what you choose, something crappy happens and that's why, as the commander, you are called upon to make the tough decisions.

Mutliplayer: Another thing that has a bug up some people's ass is the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3, which frankly I think is pretty sweet. In Multiplayer, you join a four person squad sent to some random outpost to battle Reapers, Geth or Cerberus agents. The actual missions themselves are pretty much always the same, but what's interesting about the system is that playing in multi-player affects your single player campaign. The more missions you complete in multiplayer, the higher your "galactic readiness" score is in single player, which in turn affects which cutscene you get during the ending of the game.

Now, obviously, there are those who don't think multi-player should affect single player. But for me, I found this to be unexpectedly enriching in terms of universe building. As Commander Shepherd, you spend your time on high level missions, protecting diplomats and building coalitions, all while the Reapers are attacking across the galaxy. By playing in multi-player, where you control other, customizable characters, it provides a glimpse into just what is happening on the ground around the galaxy, the soldiers who are buying you the time you need to finish your mission, often with their lives.

Plus, when you get to level cap in multi-player (which, at 20, is not hard to do), you can promote your character to single player, at which point in your single player campaign, Shepherd gains a new war asset -- i.e. your fully trained commando -- to help raise your galactic readiness and military strength more. I found it to be really well thought out over all; even if it lacks a little in variety, it makes up for it by enriching the single player experience even more.

Technical: The graphics are very nice, though there are some random clipping issues sometimes during cutscenes. The game froze on me a couple of times as well, but more irritating were a couple of rare brain farts from BioWare, again during the ending cutscenes. Specifically, the cutscenes showed members of my crew doing things that they could not possibly have been doing due to the fact that I had selected those specific team members to join me for the final mission. I'm not sure how that slipped through.

On the other hand, the game really is pioneering a new type of immersive experience by importing data from the previous games, so that choices you make in Mass Effect 1 or 2 have lasting repercussions; characters that died during my suicide mission at the end of Mass Effect 2 remained dead for me in Mass Effect 3, while they are available for players who made different choices in previous games. It's really amazing.

And the voice acting is stellar.

My Grades: Despite the wonky ending, I still think Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece. The ending and some of the technical glitches, though, force me to only give it an A- overall. The game does get some bonus points for its inclusive take on sexual and gender issues, though; the gay pilot mourning his dead husband was an interesting subplot and given the testosterone-jacked nature of at least some parts of gaming culture, may be a step in the right direction towards opening some minds.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

DC Comics Goes Completely Nuts

So, here we are, minding our own business, getting ready for the Green Lantern and Captain America movies next month -- and then, all of a sudden, DC Comics decides to go completely, off the reservation crazy. Sigh.

I guess we might as well dig in and try to make sense of this.

For those of you who haven't heard the news, here's the deal: this August, DC is rebooting their entire universe. Yep. New versions of all their characters, apparently with new costumes and in some cases new origins and powers as well.

And that's not all: to kick this off, they aren't going to half-ass it like they did after Crisis on Infinite Earths; no, this time around their entire line will relaunch, with every single title starting over at #1. That includes, you know, Batman, Superman, Detective Comics and Action Comics -- those last two, in case you were wondering, having maintained their current numbering system since they debuted in 1937 and 1938 respectively.

But those are just the details, because hidden beyond the character reboots and the renumbering firestorm sure to follow (which I may or may not start momentarily) is an announcement probably even more important to the comic book industry: DC is also going to begin offering all of these titles digitally, online, on the same day they go on sale at comic shops. In other words, goodbye, comic shops, hello iPad, because the future of comics is apparently here right now.

Whew. That's a lot. But wait, there's a little more: the details of the reboot, which involves Jim Lee redesigning all the characters (even though, as his atrociously fug Wonder Woman outfit proves, his designs mostly suck); a new Justice League title by the team of Geoff Johns and Jim lee, which will form the center of this new DCU; and a new lineup that will include 52 different titles. A number, of course, that has special significance in the DCU since there are 52 alternate universes -- a "coincidence" that has more than one fan or blogger already speculating that this entire new line is actually going to be just DC's version of the Ultimate universe.

So first, my knee jerk reaction: I don't care about rebooting the characters at all, in part because I don't follow current DC continuity anyway. And to be frank, it's so confusing at this point anyway -- just in the last few years we've had Infinite Crisis reshaping reality in undefined and random ways and the multi-verse returning with 52 alternate worlds, not to mention the confusing mish-mash that was Final Crisis -- that maybe a reboot is the only way to clean it up.

However, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I am opposed on all levels to renumbering Action Comics and Detective Comics, not to mention Superman and Batman. In the case of Action and Detective, I just feel that those numbers represent something important -- not comic book continuity, but continuity with our own past and the industry's history. Action and Detective and their numbering means something to comic book readers; they mean something to me; and it's unfortunate they it don't apparently mean much to Dan Didio.

Not that I expect any numbering change on those titles to be permanent in any sense of the word. I have no doubt that, by the time we get to what should be Action #1000, they will revert the numbering as yet another blatant, cheap sales ploy. But really, are they so desperate for a few extra bucks that they can't figure out a way to just keep the stupid numbering out of respect for all the creators and fans that have gone before them? What kind of legacy is that, exactly? "Dan DiDio, the guy who ran DC so far into the ground that they had to renumber Detective Comics after 74 years." Congrats on that.

I also think it's unlikely that this is an Ultimate universe situation, though the reverse may be true. In other words, 52 titles is just too big for this to anything but the main universe; heck, they're only putting out like 30 right now. But they might find a way to continue certain creator driven series like Grant Morrison's Batman titles by keeping them on as some sort of alternate world, multiverse storyline for old timey fans.

Finally, of course, the big news really is the distribution system. Comic shop owners are already pitching a fit about the fact that DC will be selling the titles digitally on the same day they come out in hard copy, as it deincentivizes people from going to the comic shop. of course, I don't think this will have a big impact at first and perhaps, as DC is hoping, it will even drive new audiences to try the comics since they will be able to just download them on their iPad or whatever instead of trying to track them down in some grubby basement comic shop filled with weirdos like you and me. I certainly hope so. Eventually, of course, I think this will have a major impact on the direct sales market, but let's face it -- it was inevitable, and by taking the lead, DC has probably done a smart thing by stealing the march on Marvel.

One thing is sure, though: after today, changes are coming, not just to the DCu but to comic books as we know them. Whether the changes are good or bad is something we'll all have to wait to find out.