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.

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.)