Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Top 10 OMAC Covers

It's funny how delays work. I started developing this list before the launch of the New 52, and I fretted over the lack of diversity in the covers. I had the bare bones down around the time the third issue of the relaunched series was released. Now that I'm finally getting ready to publish over a year later, the New 52 series has already ended, a slew of guest appearances related to membership in the new defunct Justice League International have come and gone, and Kevin Cho still made little impact on the list as completed in 2011. Well, at least this'll be relatively stable for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of which, after the failure of Jack Kirby's Fourth World Saga, the King scaled back his ambitions considerably. His one success at DC was Kamandi, a riff on Planet of the Apes, so he seemed to riffle through his junk drawer looking for self-contained ideas that could be similarly commercial. One was an unpublished idea for a Captain America legacy hero in the future that he'd decided not to give to Marvel. Fueled by the socially conscious science fiction of the day, Kirby offered DC the One Man Army Corps. A schlimazel appropriately named Buddy Blank is picked by the seemingly omniscient satellite computer Brother Eye to receive an instant surgery that turns him into a superhuman powerhouse with wicked fighting skills. This gift is bestowed in service to keeping a world on the brink from collapsing into war and chaos. OMAC was always pitted against superior forces, in numbers and/or raw power, that he could pulverize into submission to the positive New World Order. It was decidedly blue collar speculative fiction, but ended up being surprisingly prescient. Still, the world is hard on prophets, and OMAC wasn't selling well enough to bother continuing with it after Kirby left DC with the eighth issue.

Very little of note was done with the concept over the years, surely in part due to DC's shying away from alternate futures after they streamlined their continuity in the 1980s. In the 00s, elements were recycled into a new, contemporary concept wherein forces of a shadow government infected unsuspecting citizens with nanites that turned them into sleeper agent T-1000s. It was an okay if highly derivative premise (a summation of writer Greg Rucka's entire career,) and was more successfully implemented thanks to ties to several major company events. What heat there was cooled down though, and an attempt to offer comics a single prime OMAC came to nothing. A new Asian OMAC hewing closer to Kirby's original, as a hero but not as a world building prediction engine, bit the dust after exactly eight issues.

10) Kamandi, The Last Boy On Earth #50 (May, 1977)

I have to confess that there are any number of better covers that I could have put in the #10 spot. The truth is, I couldn't be bothered to strain over deciding who rated highest in last place. Meanwhile, this cover was my introduction to OMAC, tied the two Kirby properties together, and was inked by the underrated Alfredo Alcala. So there.

9) OMAC #8 (April, 2007)

Renato Guedes did some very attractive work on this series, including detailed, cinematic covers. Unfortunately, it's hard to get excited over robots smashing cars on the Las Vegas strip when Kirby was draining whole oceans and scooping out the brains of America's unsuspecting youth decades prior. Even here, with OMAC battling a Brother Eye built out of space junk, it's hard not to notice our hero looks like the Tick after getting punched in the face by a Megadeth album cover.

8) O.M.A.C. #1 (November, 2011)

Doom was predicted for this one right out of the gate, and I find an OMAC set in the world that is misses the point entirely. Still, I've heard the book was fun while it lasted, and it was nice to see a new Asian hero who didn't fit any sort of comic book ethnic mold. Keith Giffen seemed to be having a good time, but his simplistic covers paled against Kirby's, or even reference happy Renato Guedes.

7) Countdown Special: OMAC #1 (April, 2008)

This is a little more Magnus Robot Fighter than OMAC, but it's also a nice Ryan Sook image in the iconic Steranko mold. Okay, I'll admit that there are only six great(ish) OMAC covers, and this is where the line gets drawn between relevant (below) and merely pretty.

6) OMAC #4 (March/April, 1975)

What a difference the lack of a colored border makes. Kirby doesn't draw one damned thing once the logo barrage kicks in, but by simply allowing for breathing room under the clear blue sky, the world expands. It tricks you into thinking that monstrosity fills the entire cover, and really sells OMAC as David to its Goliath. Those are OMAC odds!

5) Firestorm #18 (December, 2005)

Yeah, this Borginess is very much divorced from the Kirby original, but it's creepily effective, and has the Nuclear Man ever had a cooler look? You will be assimilated!

4) OMAC #3 (January/February, 1975)

So here's OMAC in his goofy little Kirby flying machine with the suggestively placed stick, coasting out of the sun against a lemon yellow sky, tra-la-la. But wait, what about that semicircle of cannons as he is confronted by A HUNDRED-THOUSAND FOES! So, so OMAC.

3) The OMAC Project #5 (October, 2005)

For me, one of the defining characteristics of a great OMAC cover is to have as much stuff going on as possible. The future is coming so fast and hard that our puny 21st century brains should struggle to process it. Here we have a central figure generating multiple weapons amidst an explosion of pieces on a chessboard that's being written in binary code. Yeah, that's about blipvert enough for me.

2) OMAC #6 (July/August, 1975)

This one is awesome because of how it goes whole hog. OMAC isn't just bounding at the reader, but carrying a bound woman with him. They aren't just leaping off a wrecked train; you've got three cars of shattered windows and wrenched wheels. You know it's a dilapidated subway station because it's covered in battered signage and platform docks. You know the place is crawling with mutants, because the ones not reaching for our heroes amidst the wreckage are grasping from outside the frame. The only major flaw is that nearly half the image is taken up by clumsy, flat negative space drowning in bad copy and obese logos.

1) OMAC #1 (September/October, 1974)

This is actually kind of a terrible cover. There's an absolute vacuum for background, there's all manner of copy everywhere, the layout is awkward, the hero is a tiny figure, and there appears to be some question as to whether he is in fact a "One Man Army." On the other hand, was there a more twisted vision of sexuality in the Bronze Age (anticipating Realdoll by decades) than Lila the "Build-A-Friend?" Was there a more deliciously hyperbolic come-on than "A Startling Look Into... The World That's Coming!?" It's all so off, it's somehow on.

Honorable Mentions
OMAC #2 (1974)
OMAC Book One (1991)
Wonder Woman #221

Cornucopia of Top Comic Covers

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sunday, November 18, 2012

2008 Huntress FCBD sketch by Brian Shearer

Click To Enlarge

"I got this sketch from Brian Shearer (Gravy Boy) at my local comic shop during FCBD - May '08."

Brian Shearer

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Victor Stone: Affirmative Action Cyborg

A little over four years ago, I didn't take Barack Obama seriously as a presidential candidate. After eight years of Bush and a couple hundred years of being America, I didn't think the United States could handle a black president. Just four years earlier, Morrissey had released a song with the lyrics, "In America, the land of the free, they said, and of opportunity, in a just and a truthful way. But where the president, is never black, female or gay, and until that day, you've got nothing to say to me, to help me believe." Well, we checked one off the list, so what have you got to say now, Mr. Gloomypus? Well, I suppose he could point out that there were immediate calls for Obama's impeachment over such shady, stupid, cheap shot baloney as his being a "secret Muslim" who wasn't really a U.S. citizen. I attended a comic convention where protestors outside had drawn a Hitler mustache on Obama's picture (clearly unheeding of Godwin's Law, basic decorum, and any reasonable historical perspective. At least make it a Marxist beard to adhere remotely to your own rhetoric.) Despite my own best hopes, in the year of Trayvon Martin and poor reading comprehension among The Hunger Games audiences writ large across hatefully moronic Twitter screeds, race is still our collective kryptonite.

...Which brings us to Cyborg, who I have a problem with. Vic Stone was created in 1980 as part of a strategically multicultural New Teen Titans cloned from the DNA of the All-New, All-Different X-Men. The core team was still a bunch of white kids from the Silver Age, but they were joined by the sexy space-Latina, the vaguely Indian mystical hell-spawn, and the black robot guy. That might sound diminishing, especially coming from an Anglo-Saxon edging ever closer toward middle age. The truth is, there was a time when those three characters were among the most popular in comics. That said, those days were short lived in the grand scheme of things (3-4 years,) were never seriously exploited outside the team's book, and have not been remotely rekindled in the quarter century that's passed since. White males like Nightwing and Deathstroke have had success with spin-off solo series, and the team itself has been reconfigured into different modes of varying profitability typically centering around a nucleus of honky. Cyborg, meanwhile, had some try-outs in anthology titles and a solo mini-series decades too late, but remains best remembered as the African-American Teen Titan who didn't completely suck his way into limbo (as opposed to Hornblower, Bumblebee, Joto, etc.)

A lot of the blame hangs on his creators. Vic was basically an '80s revamping of the Thing by way of Luke Cage. He talked as "street" as middle-aged cracker Marv Wolfman could muster, but he was secretly smart and articulate. Not smart enough to manage avoiding being partially eaten by a space blob, create his own compensatory cybernetics, or even perform maintenance on his own parts (thank you S.T.A.R. Labs,) but he was no hoodlum. For the team's robo-strong man, Cyborg had a nasty tendency to bare more sensitive swaths of skin than the average male hero. For this, artist George Pérez is to blame. I mean, the guy's pivot joints are wide open, his unsecured trunk is one huge liability, and his armor doesn't even protect the good half of his head. Despite being handsome and half naked, Vic was always whining about all that he'd lost. This clearly did not include sex appeal, based on a series of hot girlfriends, nor the ability to "enjoy" their company, based on the visible meat held up by his shimmering stripper banana hammock.

That said, Vic's cybernetic enhancements weren't that impressive. He was basically in the same league as the Six Million Dollar Man, likely on a similar budget. He's strong. He can jump kind of high. He's sort of half-assed bulletproof. Enhanced senses. He can do some R2D2 type stuff like link up with computer systems and control aspects of them. Mainly, he's got a white sound blaster on his hand with your typical point and shoot interface. However, Cyborg only had a 24 hour battery charge for most of his career, which the cannon drained quickly, creating Silver Age drama over the arbitrary weakness.

You know, when I type "the Flash" in Google image search, my screen turns red. It goes emerald when I type "Green Lantern." If I type "Wonder," the search bar's first suggestion for an auto-fill is "Wonder Woman." The word "cyborg" was coined in 1960, and was being used extensively in science fiction by the 1980s. Run an image search, and Stone is competing with hundreds of other cyborgs for space, including Jean-Claude Van Damme and Angelina Jolie. So essentially, Vic had a phony personality, a generic name, cried all the time about imagined problems, and wasn't much to aspire to in the super powers department. Why didn't he catch on, I wonder?

Cyborg was benched for much of the '90s, and even had his trademarked brand (for comics, anyway) handed over to a passable Superman villain for a while. They tried giving Vic more armor (but less brain,) turned him into a liquid metal Plastic Man, and even pulled the old frienemy heel turn under the unwise new monicker "Cyberion." In recent years, he's been repositioned as a contender in outside media through animated appearances on the Teen Titans cartoon and live action on Smallville, but at the end of the day, he's still just Cyborg. Look at the poor guy wearing silver sneakers and a vest as a "costume." Aquaman and Green Arrow got spin-off pilots ahead of him.

Geoff Johns has spent several years trying to build Vic up in readers' minds, first in the pages of The Flash, on through a pivotal role in the Flashpoint crossover, and now as part of the New 52 DC reboot. The problem is, Johns has been doing this as an act of sheer will, without any serious support by the actual readers. He's a member of the current Justice League, the premier super-team at DC comics for much of their history. Unfortunately, the JLA has a shabby history with race relations, from the embarrassing Black Lightning refusing membership to the infinitely more embarrassing Vibe becoming the first actual non-white Leaguer 24 years after the team started (and it's noteworthy that he was also the first ever casualty and most tenaciously deceased of those who followed.)

The Justice League cartoon came up with the most widely accepted solution to date, by having one of the team's most powerful and prominent heroes be the African-American Green Lantern, John Stewart. It didn't hurt that Stewart is a layered character with a solid fan base, many of whom were pretty miffed about the honky Hal Jordan getting the nod for the big budget flop Green Lantern movie. Coupled with bypassing Hawkman for Hawkgirl, the League finally had diversity without having to bring in a third tier nobody who exists only to be non-white. Ideally, there would be non-derivative heroes for those roles, but as it stands, at least the minority version and the female half of a duo are better options than their forebearers.

Depending on who you ask, the Justice League was founded by either five or seven heroes, only one of whom was not born white or male (one each.) Martian Manhunter was the team's "person of color," though said color was green, and on his off hours he played a peckerwood police officer. Since John Jones was often played by African-Americans in media outside comics, and more recently in the direct-to-DVD animated movie Justice League: Doom the actual character of John Jones was made black, why not have him be the official negro Leaguer through a mild retcon massage? Yet, there are decades of comics out there with a white John Jones, and no sense of ownership in the black community of J'Onn J'Onzz. Besides, who wants their race represented by the least popular member of the team? Accommodating the passage of time is tricky business.

...Which brings us back to Cyborg, whose prowess in form and sales has been a fraction of even the Manhunter from Mars'. J'Onn J'Onzz appeared in a solo strip for thirteen years, had a self-titled series for three, and numerous mini-series and specials to his name. The guy's got more powers than Superman, and Cyborg is going to step into his role as a JLA founder? The aforementioned Doom movie was something of a hand-off to Cyborg, who was a special guest star elevated to member status thanks to his heroism. However, the turn required Cyborg to be portrayed as far more competent than he's ever been in the comics, and his pivotal role and congratulatory dialogue had the distinct odor of Poochie.

Moving on to the New 52 Justice League, the creators have smartly ramped up Cyborg's powers, including the addition of being the team's teleportational mode of transit. However, the method involved his being merged with a Mother Box, marrying the character to Kirby's New Gods mythos at the level of his very origin. In fact, since Stone's becoming Cyborg played out in the team book's pages, he is now wholly "owned" by the Justice League. Right from jump, his personal integrity is compromised, because his creation and continued existence is now wholly dependent on the whims of the book's creative team. All of his prior history has been erased, since he was no longer a Teen Titan with no seeming connection to any of his longtime friends from the prior continuity. As a Leaguer, his overarching lineage traces back to Steel (the armored scientist who was also a more developed and successful hero than Cyborg, but also entirely derivative of Superman) and Red Tornado (the robo-hero prone to being broken to bits.) This is not an admirable legacy.

As much as I would like to see a non-white hero with a significant role in the Justice League and the DC Universe as a whole, I really think Cyborg does a disservice to the goal. Barack Obama was elected as President of the United States by a clear mandate with much hoopla and hope. Barack Obama won his role, rather than having it handed to him. Cyborg was given founding status in the Justice League as a conciliatory gesture to the masses for never having a firm place for a hero of color among the DC pantheon. As much as we need to address the wrongs in this country with regard to race, making Cyborg a Justice Leaguer seems to diminish the team, and the means of his inclusion undermine the character himself. In spite of his many flaws, Cyborg deserves better than to be a token among titans, his entire canon stripped bear for the privilege, while the black community and readers as a whole deserve better than Cyborg getting a guilt ticket into the JLA.

Post-Racial DC Comics?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Brave and the Bold #52 (February/March 1964)

The top-secret story of the war that fighting men have only dared to whisper about-- explodes with the thunder of a blockbuster-- as Sgt. Rock of Easy Company, Sgt. Stuart of the "Haunted Tank", and Lt. Johnny Cloud, the Navajo Ace-- find themselves for the first time teamed against death in... SUICIDE MISSION! A Four-Part "Time Bomb" Novel!

Johnny Cloud was a tight-lipped Navajo warrior, so he was entrusted with a mission that could shorten World War II in favor of the allies. Even his fellow pilots couldn't know he was on a mission, instead working under the cover of a two-day pass. Cloud would take off from a wooded area with barely adequate take-off length that saw him brushing against tree limbs on the way up. Making it more worrisome, Cloud knew there was a bomb aboard his plane set to explode in the event of extremely rough conditions, to insure he died rather than be captured. Cloud wasn't even told his mission on the ground, having to tear open an envelope once he was in the air. It would have to wait, as German fighter planes were immediately on him. It took some maneuvering, but Cloud won the battle.

Learning that he was to pick up a valuable agent codenamed "Martin," Cloud are his information paperwork and followed a flare fired by an old man in a horse drawn wagon. The elderly Frenchman was the last survivor of the party who rescued "Martin," but wounds he sustained meant that he was not long for this world. Martin was hidden in some hay, and Johnny was surprised to find that the agent was also sealed in a suit of armor. "The Nazis captured me! And diabolically locked me inside thees heavy iron suit! So I could not escape! Or be recognized! Luckily, one of our girls working in the soup kitchen of Nazi H.Q. saw me when I was first brought in-- and notified my unit!" Cloud helped "Martin" to his plane, as the agent sobbed for his dead and dying comrades.

A Nazi tank rolled toward the allies. The old man drove his carriage into the enemy vessel, sacrificing himself to give Lt. Cloud time to get into the air. It was only then "Martin" revealed that their savior was Martin's father. More enemy planes set upon Cloud, and one was sure to down the Navajo Ace, until a friendly tank shot it out of the sky. Johnny was forced to make a rough landing, but blessedly, did not trigger the bomb in his plane. Sgt. Jeb Stuart had been alerted about "Martin," and his "Haunted Tank" was at their disposal.

Nazi tanks pursued Stuart's tank. One was destroyed by artillery fire, while the other brushed Johnny's booby trapped plane. Guided by the ghost of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, his descendant took out a final tank with a shot to an overhanging rock. However, as it turned out, this was not the rock J.E.B. meant to be the Haunted Tank's salvation.

Easy Company were on patrol in search of "Martin" when a shell landed near them. Only a few survived the explosion, and Sgt. Rock was ready to give up. However, the pleading look of Dead-Eye compelled Rock to crawl to his bazooka. With one shot, the tank was routed. "Dead-Eye-- Dead-Eye-- You made me do it-- You made me do it-- Look! It's your shot, Dead-Eye-- not mine! It's yours! Yours-- and Easy!"

Sgt. Rock eventually gathered his strength and walked on alone. Rock reached the Haunted Tank, which had sustained damage, so the occupants would have to be escorted on foot. There was no way they could reach safety dragging a suit of iron around, so after a bit of time under fire, dried out "Martin" from with. He was a she, Mlle. Marie of the French Resistance, already acquainted with Rock. Amusingly, the Nazi's had locked her in beret and all.

No longer encumbered, the group marched on, Sgt. Rock being instrumental in gunning down enemy troops on foot. An enemy tank was another thing altogether. Rock, Cloud and Stuart had previously ripped off their dog tags, so that when the tank commander demanded "Martin" give himself up, each declared himself Spartacus. Being a Nazi, the commander was plenty willing to kill them all, so Sgt. Rock made a break for it. Feigning injury from gunfire, Rock collapsed to the ground, then shoved a couple of bazooka rockets into the tank treads as they rolled by. The blast knocked Rock out, but did worse for the tank, and earned Joe a kiss. "The last thing I remember was a taste like no k-rations ever had.

Back at base, Mademoiselle Marie was decorated, while Captain Cloud and Lieutenant Stuart enjoyed their promotions. Marie kissed each on the cheek, but was met by a scowl as she reached Lt. Rock. "Don't call me Lieutenant! How can I face the combat-happy Joes of Easy Company as a brand new shavetail? I've got to figure out a way of gettin' demoted-- so I can be myself again-- Sgt. Rock of Easy!"

These three battle stars presented in a rare crossover of wartime heroes was brought to you by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert. It did a swell job of differentiating the different "flavors" of each lead's solo tales, but it's hard not to notice how much more visceral punch and personality Sgt. Rock had. One of the most compelling and best looking installments of this series!

For more blazing battle action to commemorate Veterans Day in these United States, scope the hashtag #WarComicsMonth on on Twitter and Google+!

DC Comics Presents

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Top 10 Ragman Covers

Despite never having amounted to much in the greater scheme of things, I'll always have a soft spot for the Tatterdemalion of Justice. Created by the Sgt. Rock team of Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert to star in his own eponymous 1976 series, you didn't get much more blue collar than Rory Regan. A 'Nam vet troubled by his past, Rory inherited a thrift store when his father was killed by mob enforcers. Whether delusional or truly empowered by the souls of his departed loved ones, Regan donned a suit of fabric scraps to become the vigilante Ragman. At least, that's how I was introduced to him in a favorite issue among the earliest comics I ever bought, The Brave and the Bold #196. Later on, he went from a skid row Batman to the Jewish Ghost Rider, which worked out well for him, since he is a cornerstone of Chanukah celebrations in holiday-themed comics. In honor of his finally receiving his own character-themed blog, Ragman - DC's Tatterdemalion of Justice!, I now present his finest covers...

10) Ragman #2 (November, 1991)

Truth to tell, I struggled to get to ten on this countdown, and there were several other covers that could have filled this slot. Ragman covers suffer from a sense of sameness. Most are by either Joe Kubert, who never comfortably illustrated super-heroics, or Pat Broderick, whose faces were often too overwrought with comical expression. Both did a lot of unintentionally goofy supernatural themed pieces, which always struck be as an ill-considered affectation to hang on a very street level concept. I picked this piece because it portrays the primary alteration of the character Post-Crisis, Ragman's suit eating the souls of the evil to fuel its vague power. It's also nicely rendered, even if the woman does look more overcome by the offensive odor of the rags than other undesirable aspects of her fate.

9) Ragman: Cry of the Dead #5 (December, 1993)

You may laugh at that windsock hood and those stretched out tights, but don't tell me you don't know exactly who the character is based on a silhouette. I also appreciate how insanely busy the crowd is to contrast against that central negative space.

8) Ragman #3 (January, 1977)

A terrorized black kid in bell-bottoms chased by '50s mobsters spouting concise exposition while the hero lurks just far enough off-center to suggest panel progression and nudge the fourth wall? Such a '70s DC cover!

7) Ragman: Cry of the Dead #6 (January, 1994)

Contemporary Dickensian street kids piling on Ragman is much more in the spirit the hero as originally conceived than any of the supernatural hokum and team book antics we've seen since the '90s.

6) Ragman: Suit of Souls #1 (October, 2010)

This is more of a cool pin-up than a cover. Yes, it does demonstrate the queer costume inhabited by dark spirits, but they're pretty demonic, and where's the environment? To my mind, the whole point of Ragman is that he's a skid row hero, not a supernatural Batman, not that you can tell from the bleached void behind him. The suit is too shiny and form fitting, like a franchise star.

5) The Brave and the Bold #196 (March, 1983)

Beyond being a sentimental favorite of mine, how fantastic and unusual is this piece? Inside the book, Jim Aparo was able to get the creepiness and melodrama of Ragman across, but was too clean and graceful in his depiction. That's not a problem on the outside art, a grimly impressionistic work of wrought iron frames and fires blazing without explicit source. You know there's balconies and gunplay, but only by filling in the blanks of obscured objects in a part of town too dark even for the Dark Knight toget by on his own.

4) Ragman #5 (July, 1977)

A prominent color hold on the busy logo, the big "Junkyard of Death," the burning bills-- bleeding hearts aside, that's some darned fine slumsploitaton.

3) Ragman #2 (November, 1976)

A much better cover than on the debut issue, both in terms of marketability and in conveying who the character is. Still kind of mainstream for such a niche character, but how can you not dig that textured surprint or the copy "Scourge of the Ghetto Lords?"

2) Ragman #4 (March, 1977)

Ragman was a super-hero created by a guy who didn't believe in such a thing. As with Sgt. Rock, Joe Kubert presents a disaffected, unposed man of action struggling through a bad situation. I love how the patchwork of green fabric elongated to an inhuman degree contrasts against the bleeding red background. Using the perspective of triggermen frames the image well. If only it wasn't so lackadaisical.

1) Ragman #1 (October, 1991)

While a bit generic in posturing for a nighttime avenger, this is overall the best Ragman cover. Pat Broderick really went to town with the town on this mini-series, making for a damned dirty looking tenement to squat on. The raggedy logo is in full effect, and the uncommon brick of text explains the Post-Crisis take on the character in a nutshell. The result feels like it could double as a movie poster. Had Joe Kubert ever fully knocked a Ragman cover out of the park, he'd have been a shoo-in for the top spot. As it stands this is as iconic as is available.