Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Comics At War: The Viking Commando

Hello, Readers Mine, and welcome to what I hope will become a regular feature here at Solomon Mao's: "Comics At War." For the past three years I have been reading and researching war comics as part of my academic work in popular culture, and also because of a deep and abiding love of the genre. What I want to do with "Comics At War" is let my fan-scholar flag fly and mix some critical examinations of these works with some good, old-fashioned, fan-boy love for the genre.

And what better way to start than with DC's The Viking Commando!

All-Out War 1, introducing the Viking Commando. Cover art by Joe Kubert.
Photo from my collection. 
Stay with me here. Valoric was a Viking warrior who heroically rescued his king and the royal princess from the clutches of the Huns in the 12th century. In order to allow the royals to escape, Valoric and his men formed a forlorn hope in which all were heroically killed, thereby guaranteeing their places in the Hall of Heroes in Valhalla. At least, so it appeared. In Valoric's case the undying love of the Valkyrie Maid Fey caused her to try and take him before he was actually dead, resulting in a kind of temporal storm which threw them centuries into the future and into the middle of World War II.

He's a Viking, who fights Nazis. I'll let the sheer awesomeness of that sink in for a moment.

All-Out War ran for all of six issues in 1979-80, when I was eight years old, and I thought Valoric was the most incredible thing on paper. Seriously, the guy carried a tommy-gun, grenades, and a freakin' axe! An axe which he used to take down a Focke-Wulf Fw190 by throwing it into the diving plane's prop and engine! This, Readers Mine, is the stuff that eight year-old boys' dreams are made of. Now, does any of that make any sense? Does the historical timeline add up? For that matter, how can Valoric suddenly speak and understand 20th century English, French, and German? How does something like this even work?

Because Robert Kanigher. That's why.

One of the most prolific, sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustratingly formulaic, and sometimes completely, wonderfully, insane writers in American comics history, Kanigher wrote and created the Viking Commando. (and Sgt. Rock, and the Haunted Tank, and Mlle. Marie, and The War That Time Forgot, and that's just in DC's war line.) In fact, Valoric was something of an update of an even earlier Kanigher creation, the Viking Prince, who dates back all the way to The Brave and the Bold 1 (1955). Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert (who had originally drawn the Viking Prince), would bring him back in Our Army at War 162-63, when Sgt. Rock discovered him frozen in ice, and the Prince too would fight Nazis. The Prince also had a semi-corporeal Valkyrie lover, only, unlike Valoric, the Prince was eager to meet his heroic death to be with her. Valoric, on the other hand, tended to prefer the charms of the various beautiful and, you know, living women who crossed his path, secure in the knowledge that his busty Valkyrie would be there, waiting.

Love triangles with one part temporally displaced bearded hunk, one part spunky girl war-reporter, and one part mythical, incorporeal Norse demi-goddess? Gotta be Kanigher. No one, and I mean no one, does high melodrama mixed with high explosives like Kanigher. Unlike much of his stellar war genre work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though, there is little nuance or subtlety in the Commando tales. Everyone speaks in exclamations! While shouting out their motivations, their interior monologues becoming exterior! But then the Nazi's show up and Valoric takes on a Tiger tank with an axe and a hand-grenade and who the hell cares how he's talking?!? I'll be writing a lot more about Kanigher here in the future, believe me.

Plus, you get George Evans. Yes, that's right, the Viking Commando stories in All-Out War were all drawn and inked by George Evans, who was part of the incredible EC Comics stable in the early 1950s (including  Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales), drew for Archie Goodwin's ground-breaking Vietnam era comic Blazing Combat, and was a regular for National Lampoon and Marvel's mystery-horror lines.

Splash page from All-Out War 5, script by Robert Kanigher, art by George Evans.
Photo from my collection.
Evans combined a minute attention to detail with an incredibly flexible line that could range from photo-realism to exaggerated cartoonishness, particularly when it came to the appearance of the Nazi officers who generally served as the villains of the Commando's stories. Exaggerated chins, noses, ears, and beady-eyes always set apart the ugly "Huns" from our handsome, bearded hero and the all-American boys and men he served with.
Gruppenfuhrer Heinrich Scholz by Kanigher and Evans.
Photo from my collection.
Sometimes Evans' roots in the war, crime, and horror comics of the 1950s are cringe-inducingly obvious, as with his rendering of Gruppenfuhrer Heinrich Scholz ("The War Without a Name,"All-Out War 6) whose face is not merely a masterpiece of the grotesque, but also deliberately invokes the worst racist Asian stereotypes of the war genre, because the story winds up with Scholz's decedent leading a band of "Mongomutants" in a post-apocalyptic America (goddamn Kanigher, man!) that have more than a little of the Mongol Hordes about them - if the Mongol Hordes had also absorbed Nazi racial theory, that is.

Still, Evans was always masterful with mood, and used deep blacks and impressionistic backgrounds to evoke the feel of the battlefield and of combat while still staying within the constraints of the Comics Code. Evans' life-long love of aeroplanes is evident in every scene which involves an aircraft, from German fighters and gliders to American B-17s and light scout aircraft, every line, gun-port and antenna is accurate. Unfortunately, Evans is not as comfortable with combining a realistic line with effective movement. In panels where mist, fog, or smoke allows him a looser line, Evans machines and characters are fluid and leap across the panel. In panels where Evans is using a detailed line, his figures here are often stiff and posed.

So there's the Viking Commando (seriously: Viking, axe, Nazis - how can you go wrong? WHY IS VALORIC NOT IN THE NEW  52?!!?). He is one of the first comic book characters that I remember, one of the first that captured my boy's heart and foredoomed me to a sometimes heartbreaking, nearly always frustrating, but never-ending love affair with comics. There were others, and they all came from DC's war line. It would be a few more years before the capes and spandex crowd caught my interest. How could they even begin to compete with a Viking Commando, a Haunted Tank, an Unknown Soldier, the beautiful Mademoiselle Marie, or, most of all, with Sgt. Rock and Easy Company? Thirty-five years after All-Out War 1 hit the stands, I'm still entranced by these stories, and I have no doubt that they form a vital part of my enduring fascination with World War II and pop culture. From such beginnings spring advanced degrees in history.

Also - dude, he's a Viking who fights Nazis with an axe!!!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Meth Monday: Book Signing this Saturday (26 July)!

Hello, Readers Mine! This one is going to be short and sweet, but it counts!

The big news this week is that I and my co-author, K. Dale Koontz, will be signing copies of our book, Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad at Books-A-Million in Gastonia, North Carolina, from 2 -5 pm this Saturday, July 26! We'll even be giving away samples of the Blue! (First one's free anyway, after that, you have to buy the book!) So tell your friends, tell your family, tell your co-workers - hell, tell your enemies, we'll take their money too - and help us make this signing a smash success!

BAM Gastonia is at 3710 E. Franklin Blvd, and for more information feel free to call them at 704-824-0221.

We'll see you Saturday, and, until then, contemplate the idea of Bryan Cranston bringing his Tony Award-winning role as LBJ to the small screen. I shit you not!

Bryan Cranston as LBJ in All the Way coming to the small screen soon via Steven Spielberg and HBO!

Keep Cookin'!


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Four Color Culture: Problems With the New, Female Thor

Thor by Russel Daughterman
Hello, Readers Mine! Well, I've been thinking about starting a regular comics column or two here for a while now, but I didn't expect to begin quite like this. So on Tuesday, Marvel took to The View to reveal that, come October, there will be a new, female Thor in town.The announcement, followed by an official press release, included a sneak peek of the new Thor by artist Russel Dauterman. Jason Aaron, current writer for Marvel's ongoing Thor: God of Thunder title will also be writing the new Thor (which will be an entirely new volume, titled simply Thor.)

Aaron also commented that "This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR or the Marvel Universe. But it's unlike any Thor we've seen before." (Except for, you know, that AWESOME time Storm picked up an uru hammer, or that time Wonder Woman did, or Rogue, or Jane Foster, or You Getting My Drift Yet?) Of course, the argument is that the latest female Thor is not some temporary storyline, or alternate reality/continuity, but the actual, official Thor of the Marvel Universe (MU). Except no.
Also Thor, also by Daughterman.
You see, Marvel also released another image of the now unworthy former-Thor, sans most of his left arm and hefting a great big axe. Readers of Thor: GOT or Uncanny Avengers will recognize the axe as Jarnbjorn, the dwarven-forged axe wielded by Thor in his callow youth, before he originally became worthy of the hammer Mjolnir. Importantly, the missing arm also connects the image with Aaron's King Thor of Asgard, the familiar male Thor as he will be in a far (and I mean FAR) future, where his left arm has been replaced by the arm of the Destroyer. (King Thor is made of equal parts awesomesauce and whup-ass, BTW) So this all appears to fall in line with Aaron's long-term arc where Thor is definitively male.

Here's the thing that grinds my gears, though: Aaron and Marvel's disingenuous language about the new take. Thor isn't like Captain America or Iron Man, where if a different person puts on the uniform/suit, they can still claim the character's title. Thor is a unique, discrete, individual entity, and even without the hammer, he is still a God, still the next best thing to immortal,and STILL FREAKING THOR!!!! Thor is his name, not his title, not his nom de guerre, but his very own name. Over the decades a lot of people (Seriously. No, seriously A LOT) have proven worthy of Mjolnir  
and the power of
King Thor, by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic.
 Note the left arm - and the hammer.
Thor, but none of them has been Thor, because, you know, Thor's his name.  Look, Thor has always been a drama queen, so maybe as he goes on his quest for redemption and worthiness he renounces his name or something, leaving it to be picked up by the next person who can use Mjolnir. Could be. But make no mistake, somewhere along the way, this story WILL be about the original Thor redeeming himself and becoming worthy of Mjolnir again. That's not to say that the female Thor won't continue. After all, Beta Ray Bill is still out there with Stormbreaker. But mark my words, Marvel simply will not get rid of male Thor forever, just as they will not kill off Wolverine for good, or Professor X, or Jean Grey, or Gwen Stacey, or Peter Parker, or Bucky, etc, etc, etc. Plus, Jason Aaron himself has called this a "Beta Ray Bill-style story about someone else wielding the hammer for awhile" (emphasis added). In the same interview Aaron also carefully refers to Thor Odinson to differentiate male-Thor from female-Thor, and hints that Thor sans-hammer is just not up to snuff. Against Ice Giants. Yeah. Ice giants, the big blue guys whose butts Thor has been kicking since he was the Asgardian equivalent of 5 years old. Because the hammer isn't where all of Thor's abilities come from. He should still have basically super-strength, super-toughness, be able to survive in the vacuum of space, swing a mean axe, and let's not even get into his girdle of strength and his chariot pulled by the goats Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder. My point is, even without Mjolnir, Thor of Asgard ain't exactly Caspar Milquetoast, Esq. Plus, again, still Thor. So, sorry Aaron, but just because some one has the powers of Thor, doesn't make that person Thor, because that just not how identity works.

Finally, there's a whole other level where I'm raging about Marvel's idiocy in ignoring a pre-existing, truly great Asgardian female character with a built in audience: Sif. Do you remember Journey Into Mystery? It was one of Marvel's longest running (albeit often interrupted)  titles (and where Thor first appeared waaay back in the Lee/Kirby days), and Marvel cancelled it last year in the wake of Marvel NOW! Well, the last arc in JIM starred Sif. Lady Sif, the warrior woman of Asgard, played to tremendous fan acclaim in film and on TV by Jaimie Alexander. In the last 9 issues of JIM, Kathryn Immonen (scripts) and (mostly) Valerio Schiti (pencils) were giving us one of the most beautifully realized, kick-ass, complex, female heroes that Marvel has ever done. So of course, they cancelled the series - not because sales were particularly bad, but because, in the wake of the films, they wanted to concentrate on Thor and Loki stories. So why not relaunch JIM with Sif, or giver her her own title, rather than gender-swap Thor?

Alls I'm sayin'.... The Lady Sif in Journey Into Mystery by Immonen and Schiti.

Well, because Marvel is still the same "readers don't buy comics with female leads" place it always has been despite the phenomenal success and stories in Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel. They are unwilling to gamble on Sif's name recognition to sell, so they are trying to cash in on Thor's, and to garner some free press (mission accomplished!) and attention to their supposedly newly progressive attitudes. The new Thor will run for a while, likely usually in tandem with an accompanying subplot dealing with unworthy Thor's search for meaning/redemption/worth, and eventually Thor will either spawn two ongoing titles (a la the multiple X- and Avengers books), or female Thor will quietly fade away. This isn't a breakthrough, or a new direction, or a significant shift. It is merely the latest Mighty Marvel Marketing Magic. I plan to continue reading Thor: GOT, male, female, or neuter Thor, because I'm a fan. But I'm also not a fool.

UPDATE: Marvel has just announced that "Superior Iron Man" will be joining Avengers NOW! , so the pattern has become crystal clear: new and sometimes clashing personalities in traditional character roles. We say it with Spidey/Doc. Ock (marketing test-run anyone?), and now we'll have Sam Wilson's Captain America, female Thor, and Superior Iron Man. So, yeah. Excuses for more #1 books, yet more short-lived volumes, and More Money For Marvel!!!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Meth Monday: Breaking Bad Fest

Hello, Readers Mine! Well, it's Monday again and it appears I have managed to put together a two-week posting streak so, you know, good for me!

Just as a reminder, Dale and I will be signing copies of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad at Books-A-Million in Gastonia, NC on Saturday 26 July, beginning at 2 pm. So if you're in the area, come and see us, and make a day of it: have lunch or dinner at Portifinos or Sakura, come see us and grab a copy of Wanna Cook? to prepare for AMC's Breaking Bad Binge starting next month, and then catch a flick at the coincidentally named AMC theaters right next door. It's a great way to spend a Saturday!

Now that my pitch is over, in other BrBa News, a group of die-hard fans in Albuquerque, NM decided to hold a Breaking Bad Convention and see if anyone would come. They started on Kickstarter and raised enough money to get things rolling and now Breaking Bad Fest is a real thing hppening on 8 November 2014 from 4-8 pm at the Albuquerque Convention Center. For more information and tickets, check out their site and keep up with the latest from the con organizers by following them on Twitter or Facebook .

Finally, Wanna Cook? keeps getting gratifyingly great reviews like this one from SF Book Review, or the one from Culture Smash!. We may be doing a bit more with the folks from Culture Smash int he coming weeks, so stay tuned here and over on Dale's blog Unfettered Brilliance for more details as they come.

That's pretty much it for this week, so I'll leave you with a picture that is in the book in black and white, but is most definitely cooler in color, and which was given to us (squeee!!) by Michael Slovis, Breaking Bad's cinematographer:

Michael Slovis checks the light levels on the set of "Peekaboo" (2.06). Photo courtesy of Michael Slovis.
Keep cookin'!


Monday, July 7, 2014

Meth Monday: Book Signings!

Hello, Readers Mine! It seems like I start off every one of these blog posts off with an apology for not writing regularly, and a promise to do better in the future - promises which I never seem to keep. Since doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results is one of the primary definitions of insanity, I think I'll just skip all of that this time. I may up my involvement here in the near future, but I can't guarantee it. However, I am annoyingly present in all sorts of social media and micro-blogging sties, so if you click on one of those nifty symbols to the right of the page here, and follow me on the network of your choice, then you'll get more than enough of my worldview.

So then, catching up:

Dale and I spent a week in Sacramento, CA at the always exhaustingly incredible and inspiring biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, about which you can read more here. After the conference, we were lucky enough to be able to hold a signing at Beers Books, a truly awesome independent bookseller in downtown Sacramento. We saw plenty of old friends and made a few new ones, and sold some books to boot. Interestingly enough, the TSA didn't even blink when we carried a pound of "the Blue" in our carryons.

Dale (right) and I at our signing table at Beers Books in Sacramento, CA. Photo courtesy of Michael Starr.
Look! Our book is on the shelf
at Books-A-Million!!!
Photo courtesy of Laney McDonald.
Shortly before we headed out to the West Coast, on a family shopping trip I discovered copies of our book on the shelves of Books-A-Million in Gastonia, NC. Besides always being a kick to see your book on the shelves of a bookstore, the manager, who happened to be shelving books nearby, was really excited to meet me, and even more so about having a books signing at his store. So HEADS UP GASTONIA!! We'll be in town and signing books at Books-A-Million on Saturday 26 July, starting at 5pm! This is excellent timing, as AMC will be kicking off their binge-broadcast of all five seasons of Breaking Bad on 10 August, so this is the perfect time to prepare for your re-watch or first time viewing of this incredible series with your very own copy of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and how cool would it be to really do it up right with a signed copy? So, if you can, come out and see us on the 26th!

Otherwise, you can find Wanna Cook? at all the usual places like Amazon, Powell's, and Barnes & Noble, as well as at Got Books? in Shelby, NC. So really, you have no excuse not to get a copy!

Until next time - Keep Cookin'!



Thursday, July 3, 2014

New from THINGS! and STUFF!: spaceexp: Solar Flare Eruptions captured by NASA’s Solar...





spaceexp:



Solar Flare Eruptions captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory



Sure, it’s false-color, but… PRETTY!




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New from THINGS! and STUFF!: cbrachyrhynchos: (via Good Show Sir - Only the worst...





cbrachyrhynchos:



(via Good Show Sir - Only the worst Sci-fi/Fantasy book covers)


With a title like that, I’d kinda expect a direct-from-Amazon erotica release.



Thee wants to read it though, do thee not, English?




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