Friday, April 25, 2008

Bronze Beauties #19: Tarzan

Tarzan’s media adaptations have been as spotty as a leopard skin loincloth. He’s been in bad movies and good movies, bad TV and good TV, bad comics and good comics. The problem with most of his comic book adaptations mirrors that of his weaker films and TV shows: The lord of the jungle is usually portrayed as a short-haired, clean cut veritable park ranger who just happens to live in a tree and has apes for relatives.

The Tarzan comic strip, begun in 1929, remained true to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories, lavishly illustrated by the legendary Hal Foster and later Burne Hogarth, Russ Manning (and other lesser stars). But Lord Greystoke’s comic books (beginning in the 1940s) published by Dell, Gold Key and others usually featured a more watered down version of the character (at least visually).

But in 1972, DC Comics acquired the rights to Tarzan comics, picking up with the numbering left off by Gold Key. TARZAN #207 began a retelling of the origin, followed by adaptations of other Burroughs novels and stories, written and drawn by Joe Kubert, by that time already a legend through his work on Hawkman, Viking Prince, Sgt. Rock and other titles. But to my eyes, the artist (then in his early 40s... my age!!!) was about to create his signature work. Kubert’s fluid, naturalistic, yet scratchy pen proved a perfect match for the character and his environs. This ape-man had long hair, scars and a savage, yet regal visage, set against a jungle that looked foreboding but beautiful, populated by beasts that were obviously not drawn from stuffed animal reference and visited by gorgeous, often dangerous women!

Kubert (who also edited the series and its spin-offs KORAK, SON OF TARZAN and WEIRD WORLDS) handled the vines of TARZAN through most of the 1970s, until Marvel acquired the rights in 1977. That series was drawn by the likewise legendary John Buscema, and in a style that seemed to ape (no pun intended) Kubert’s style, but it never quite captured the jungle flavor to the perfect extent that DC's did.

Dark Horse has reprinted
Kubert’s DC TARZAN material in expensive hardbacks, but as usual, the stuff looks much better in its original bronze era newsprint (and they are affordable as well). Here are the covers to #221 (July 1973) and #234 (Dec. 1974) by the amazing Joe Kubert.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Bronze Beauties #18: The Invincible IRON MAN!

My high school pal Chris Hess’ favorite superhero was Iron Man. I found this an odd preference. Oh, I’d pick up the odd issue of ol’ Shellhead (as Stan Lee used to call him), the war-borne alter ego of industrialist Tony Stark, a man with a heart condition and a drinking problem (that came later). But he always felt to me a perpetual B-lister. Part of the problem was his costume. Not its appearance, but rather, even as a kid, I just didn’t believe it.

Iron Man, at least as he was depicted until recent years, represents one of my (and Paul Pope’s) biggest beefs with superhero design: The lack of thought or care given to the practicality of costumes combined with a lazy depiction of them as clothing.

Most superhero artists draw costumes as simply lines on a neutered naked body. Characters are usually drawn with every muscle delineated and shaded, while the costume fits so snugly that nary a wrinkle appears, even at the joints. Meanwhile, boots sit flush against flesh despite having pants tucked into them and things as bulky as mechanical web-shooters magically disappear under a form-fitting glove (I always wondered if Tony Stark’s nose was squished under his iron mask).

Granted, it’s COMICS, and a certain amount of creative license is not only allowed, but welcome. We all accept that the length of Batman’s cape will widely fluctuate depending upon whether he’s standing on the roof of police headquarters or dramatically leaping off of same. Likewise, the eyes on his mask (and Spider-Man’s and any other character’s whose face is hidden) can open, close or change shape with his emotions. I have a much harder time accepting that Black Canary does martial arts in fishnets and high heels.

Certainly, too much believability isn’t the solution. Alex Ross’ hyper-realistic painted comics attempt to depict costumes as being of the real world as everything else. The problem is, this approach flies in the face of what makes comics work as an artform. “Cartoonist” is not an insult. Ross’ approach is not without its appeal, but that appeal is limited, and ultimately his work a novelty.

Anyway, as for Iron Man, I never got the visual impression that his costume was made out of METAL. Most artists just drew his armor the same way they’d draw any other superhero’s outfit, with only the metal bands around the neck and shoulders seemingly made of any kind of iron. Check out how Herb Trimpe draws IM on the (super-cool) cover of issue #39 (July 1971). In a startlingly underground-looking illustration, the hero looks more like he’s clad in red and yellow VELVET than iron! And Trimpe wasn’t the only one… Gil Kane (one of my favorite artists of the era) was notorious for making every character look like their costumes were spray-painted on.

Jack Kirby & Al Milgrom’s cover for IRON MAN #93 (Dec. 1976) makes more of an effort to depict the armor as, well, ARMOR, but then again, with his trademark squiggle lines, Kirby had a way of making FLESH look metallic!

Iron Man’s armor has been explained as being constructed out of millions of microscopic collapsible “cells,” held together by a powerful force field, which explains how he can bend his elbows and knees. But the explanation always felt like an afterthought to rationalize cloth-looking armor. In the awful ‘80s and ‘90s (as dark a period in comics as other culture), IM’s armor became bigger, more complicated and clunkier, adding dozens of variations to the arsenal. And of course, the upcoming movie depicts the Golden Avenger in a variation on the comics design that seems both believable and… metal.

Hey, you think Joel Schumacher got his idea for Bat-Suit nipples from Iron Man’s little nubbins?

Next Bronze Beauty: TARZAN!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

PLAN B (Blue Business Shirts)

I’ve chosen to live a life that allows me the luxury of (among other things) not owning a suit. Some might find this trivial, but on hot summer days when I see guys walking down the street all Jos-A-Banked (ties not even loosened), I just don’t understand why they’re not keeling over from heat prostration. I think I might actually have a heat allergy, the discomfort that I feel when the temperature goes over 80 is so severe, I need to don the softest, most threadbare garments I own. I simply cannot deal (I should probably get that checked out).

But even if I DID find myself in some alternate universe where I toiled at a job where I had to wear a suit, I would not fall into the sartorial trap that’s ensnared so many of the gray masses. I would never, ever wear one of those goddamn blue business shirts. Those things seem to be a badge of corporate pride along with Tag Heuer watches and slicked back hair. But to me, the blue business shirt is a badge of conformity that screams “I give up! My life is not my own!” as brightly as a white surrender flag (and those blue shirts with the white collars and cuffs... are the Devil incarnate).

What makes it even worse is when the blue business shirt dudes wear those things out socially. I don’t care if you’re going out for drinks after work, stop by the damn Gap and buy a T-shirt. (My friend John has been known to do this so not to appear corporate when going out straight from the office).

The chances that I’m going to get a job that requires attire other than my usual jeans and T-shirt are unlikely. It’s just that there are precious few situations in which I can picture myself schlepping to an office again every day. Which brings us to Plan B.

As in, the latest in a long line of TV commercials that try to flatter corporate types into thinking that they’re some daring rebels who live outside of the constraints of mainstream society due to some ever so slight variation from the norm either in what they do on the weekend or some slight tic in their day to day business doings.

A recent ad for Brother printers shows a group of businessmen (and the token powersuited woman) on an elevator, all in shades of gray (literally) with sour expressions on their pusses as the elevator drags them up to their hideous, hated corporate gigs. In the midst of the gray mass is one man in color (but not of color), clad not in a suit, but in a (you guessed it) blue button-down shirt, although sans necktie. He has a supercilious smirk on his face, as if his life is far and away better than the nine-to-five drudgery of his fellow elevator riders.

But when Johnny Blueshirt gets to his floor, we find that…Oh my God, he works in an office!!! But wait, it’s not just any office! This utopia is in COLOR and the dress code is business CASUAL, and when Johnny passes a co-worker, he flashes him a PEACE SIGN (I shit you not)!! Then, in the ultimate fuck-you to Plan A, Johnny walks over to the office’s Brother Printer, which apparently represents a bold alternate business lifestyle akin to tossing out the kitchen coffeemaker and installing a Jagermeister tap!

This is NOT Plan B. It’s at best Plan A2. Tie or no tie, Xerox or Brother, it’s still doing what you’re supposed to do, working a job where you have to be in an office every day from a to b, doing the bidding of your evil/benevolent (whatever) overlords, constantly fretting that downsizing or another office birthday party is looming.

I’m not trying to say that Plan A or even A2 is an inappropriate choice for everyone. Lots of people are genuinely fulfilled, enjoy their work, even (shudder) like wearing suits, and hooray for them. But it drives me batty when this lifestyle is portrayed by Madison Avenue (by necessity the most delusional of the corporate drones) as being in any way rebellious or daring. But all advertising is about either flattering or shaming its potential audience. You’re so beautiful! You’re so fat! Your baby is the most important person on the planet! Your car is a piece of shit!

Thing is, outside of spots for beer, fast food or video games, I doubt we’ll ever see advertising that truly celebrates the individual that fully rejects Plan A, not out of sloth or apathy or irresponsibility, but as a conscious, passionate choice that leads to a different, perhaps less lucrative, but in other ways more fulfilling life. If Brother had any balls, they’d run an ad depicting some tattooed, jeans-clad, hirsute social anarchist running off copies of his nutty political manifestos on a Brother copier while his gay lover printed out copies of his Photoshop collages of Jesus fellating Simon Cowell. Now THAT’S Plan B! But that ain’t gonna happen. Ever.

Which is fine… the lack of comprehension, indignation or outright rejection by the Blue Business Shirts is all simply… part of the Plan.