Wednesday, July 30, 2014

WGTB Reviews: Andre The Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

As a boy who grew up in the 1980s it was impossible to ignore the World Wrestling Federation. Hulk Hogan, Rowdy "Roddy" Piper, Junk Yard Dog, Jimmy "Superfly" Sunka; these names were ubiquitous in the schoolyard and you needed to understand the basics to take part in almost any conversation. For me, while I was never allowed to stay up and watch the WWF Saturday Night Main Event, I never-the-less gleaned as much information as I could about the goings-on of Hulk and crew on the after school and weekend shows that were scattered across television. André the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown tells the story of one of the most memorable characters of the '80s wrestling boom, a remarkably large man named André René Roussimoff also known as André the Giant.      

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Box Brown, First Second, 2014, pp. 240, C$19.99 or US$17.99
Born in Grenoble, France to Boris and Mariann Roussimoff, themselves of Polish and Bulgarian ancestry, André had the rare condition of "giantisim", itself caused by the body's over-production of growth hormone or, to use the medical term, Acromegaly. André's condidition was both a gift and curse and he was 240 pounds (109 kg) by the time he turned 12. At about that same time, he dropped out of school to work on a farm. Eventually, he would apprentice for a trade and find work in a factory before moving to Paris where he briefly worked as a mover. But it was in the French capital that he would be scouted by a local promoter and find the job that would make him a household name: professional wrestler.

André was big as a child but originally only ever envisioned life on the farm. All subsequent art from Box Brown's Andre the Giant: Life and Legend.
Six months later and wrestling under the name "Geant Frerre", André took the wrestling world by storm and soon was off to Japan. After time in Asia, he made his way to Montreal in 1972. While in Canada, André became a smash hit and soon sold-out the venerable Montreal Forum on a regular basis. But this success was short lived: it became obvious to all that his size meant few could beat him in the ring. This forced André to meet with American promoters Verne Gagne and Vince McMahon Sr. who soon brought the Frenchman to the United States and set up a schedule where he wouldn't wear thin on American audiences. Eventually, André became a sensation in America and as the World Wide Wrestling Federation became the WWF and the 1980s wrestling boom took hold, André the Giant became a key part of that increasingly television-based spectacle. He remained a WWF stalwart until his final on-air performance in 1991 and would pass away only months after that.       

André always towered over his competitors as well as his fans.
Box Brown's Andre the Giant: Life and Legend walks its reader through the amazing story recounted above. Full of tidbits and antidotes about André's life, as well as insights into the wrestling business and first-hand accounts of the Giant's exploits, this is another example of why comic biographies can be so enjoyably informative. Simply put, I would never read a 240 page book about André the Giant. Sure, he's an interesting person, but limited time means limited books. But Life and Legend took me a fraction of time that a prose tome would, yet in that time I managed to gather a great deal of information, insight and amusement.  
André size often meant that people wanted to take a crack at him and he was bullied quite often. However he sometimes made things difficult for himself too. 
Box's storytelling is fair to all parties involved and while much of the information is taken from secondary sources (which are listed in the Source Notes at the back), the book is well documented and has a good mix of unknown stories and welcome analysis. Indeed, while the book is clearly an informed labour of love of both André and wrestling by Brown, it's not gushing or bogged down by jargon and is therefore accessible to someone who isn't overly familiar with this performance sport. Brown takes pains to document certain key events in both the history of the WWF and André's life, with the match between Hogan and André at Wrestlemania III given special prominence. It's here that the reader comes face-to-face with André's devotion to his business and fans and it's impossible not to appreciate him after reading this.  

Hulk Hogan body-slams André the Giant at Wrestlemainia III. Brown explains what made this event important to wrestling and how hurt André actually was when he performed in this match   
Brown's art is very good and reflects the story of André with compassion, care and sincere interest. As you can see from the posted images, the artwork isn't detailed or photo-realistic, but never-the-less has a dignity, respect and gravitas that is needed to tell the tale of André's life. Things weren't easy for this man. Yes, there were advantages to being big, it was also a considerable burden. Box Brown's work is a worthy telling of this story and a credit to the comic storytelling medium. 4/5 STARS

Thursday, July 24, 2014

SuperSoundtracks #7: Reed Richards & Deadmau5

Reed Richards a.k.a. "Mr. Fantastic" is without question my favourite comic character. I like him because first and foremost, he's very smart, quite probably the smartest character in the Marvel Universe. But he's also a family man, a good and loyal friend but flawed and imperfect in a lot of ways too. Simply put, he's one of Marvel's most interesting and well-rounded characters. This is why it has been so difficult figuring out a SuperSoundtrack for him. If you can't remember, a SuperSoundtrack is a re-occurring feature on WGTB where we pair a song with a comic book superhero and explain why the two fit together. It's basically a fun way to talk about both comics and music, two things we love here!  

Reed Richards in Marvel's New Avengers Vol. 3 #1 (March 2013) Written by Jonathan Hickman with pencils by Steve Epting and inks by Rick Magyar & Rank D'Armata
Reed Richards was created in the early 1960s. You might remember the (likely apocryphal) story: Martin Goodman, publisher Marvel Comics was playing golf with National Periodical Publications' (DC Comics) Jack Liebowitz or Irwin Donenfeld when the DC boss boasted about the success of the new Justice League of America title. Goodman, seeing an opportunity for Marvel to return to superheroes, went back to the office and instructed Stan Lee to come up with a new team of science-fiction themed characters. The result was The Fantastic Four #1, released in November 1961 and co-created with artist Jack Kirby

Cover of Marvel's The Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #1 (November 1961)
Although the Fantastic Four owed their creation to the Justice League, they were unlike them in many ways. Having acquired their powers from bombarding cosmic rays while on a spaceship of Reed Richards' design, they brought to their stories pre-existing relationships and were a family. Reed's girlfriend and eventual wife was Susan Storm, the lone female member of the team, and her brother Johnny, was a hot-headed teenager. The team also featured Reed's best friend from college, Ben Grimm. Ben's power was that he had permanently turned into a rock-like "Thing". Reed's was that he could stretch and change in an elastic-like manner; Sue's was that she could turn invisible; and Johnny became the Human Torch. The Fantastic Four, also in stark contrast to their Justice League counterparts, didn't keep secret identities and were celebrities in their own right. 

Image from Marvel's The Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #47 (February 1966) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
From The Fantastic Four #1, the book would proceed for 611 issues and included some of the most highly acclaimed runs in all of comics. Indeed, Stan and Jack's run of 102 (with 6 Annuals) in so many ways stands atop the podium of the Silver Age and introduced to the Marvel Universe such stalwart characters as the Skrulls, the Watcher, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, the Kree and so many others. Stan and Jack's collaborative effort also gave birth to what became the "Marvel Method", a teamwork focused way of comic story writing. 

Image from Marvel's The Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #358 (November 1991) Story by Tom DeFalco, pencils by Paul Ryan & inks by Danny Bulanadi.  
As the Silver Age turned to Bronze, The Fantastic Four lost much of their lustre. It still sold well and kept the self-proclaimed "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine" but it would take British-Canadian creator John Byrne to really revive the franchise. Byrne, stepping-up in the summer of 1981, gave us another long and enjoyable run of the venerable title. Byrnes' run was five years long and had much of the science-fiction that Lee and Kirby's did, but also gave it a more modern feel, reaching its height (in this blogger's opinion) with "The Trial of Reed Richards" arch. Here Reed Richards faced prosecution for saving the life of world devouring Galactus. In his defence Richards offered up this rationale: 

Image from Marvel's The Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #262 (January 1984) Here Byrne's unique storytelling comes to a fore with Reed facing criminal charges of a galactic scale.
Byrnes' enjoyable run was followed by subsequent creators who were met with mixed success and gradually the Fantastic Four were eclipsed by the likes of the Uncanny X-Men and the Avengers. However, when speaking of creators, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the great run that Jonathan Hickman put together in the latter portion of the first volume of The Fantastic Four. In this run Richards founded the Future Foundation, the core members being the two children he and Sue had together and a mix of other eclectic personalities. Brian Michael Bendis and Hickman would later introduced us to Reed as a core member of the Illuminati in the New Avengers. This group brought Mr. Fantastic together with Ironman, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Namor, and Professor X (and later Beast) to deal with threats that only the brightest on Earth could handle. 

Of late, there has been some unfortunate talk of Marvel cancelling the The Fantastic Four comic book. I know the numbers haven't been great recently, but from what I've read, this has more to do with 20th Century Fox owning the movie rights to the characters and Marvel/Disney not wanting to cross-promote another company's product. What comes of this we will have to wait and see.

The final appearance of Reed Richards in the first volume. From Marvel's The Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #611 (December 2012)  Written by Jonathan Hickman with pencils and inks by Ryan Stegman. Pictured here with his father Nathaniel Richards.
For Reed Richards' SuperSoundtrack I’ve selected some progressive house by Canadian artist Deadmau5. The track is "Strobe" off Deadmau5’s 2009 album For Lack of a Better Name and while I know it might seem a little strange to go with progressive house when there is a plethora of older music that could be used for the elder statesmen of the Marvel Universe, (here I'm thinking specifically of J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor) I still think there are good reasons to do so. 

Cover of Deadmau5's For Lack of a Better Name. This was the Canadian recording artist's fourth studio album. 
Listening to Strobe, it starts with an ambient piano-infused progression which really allows you to picture Reed in his laboratory, where he is the most happy and effective. At about minute four of the ten minute track, the beat kicks in and it's here where we can envision Mr. Fantastic as a man of action: a scientist who is not above getting his hands dirty and using his towering intelligence to do what his family, friends or the planet Earth needs. By the end, the melody transitions again into an almost hypnotic place and then closes in a final wind-down with a chain of mysterious ethereal and space-like sounds. This is where I've always felt Reed Richards is at home and is best placed to do his work: in outer space. Just as long has he has his family with him, of course! 

Reed Richards in his lab. Image from The Fantastic Four Vol. 4 #1 (January 2013) written by Matt Fraction with pencils by Mark Bagley and inks by Mark Farmer
Although I went with Strobe for Reed Richards, there are some runners-up to be mentioned. The first is the above mentioned organ masterpiece by J.S. Bach, which I think is a direct ancestor of music like progressive house. But more recently Deadmau5's track Errors in my Bread from his June 2014 album While (1<2) also captures a scientist at work. Have a listen to all of the above mentioned music and if you can picture the great Reed Richards talking to Norrin Radd or Black Bolt while doing it, then I've accomplished my goal. Of course, if you have any suggestions about Reed Richards, Deadmau5 or any other SuperSoundtrack then please comment below. Thanks for reading! 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Female Thor?

I say bring it on! 

Thor comics have never been so much about the man as they're about Thor's hammer Mjolnir. Remember Beta Ray Bill? If not, Bill first appeared in Thor #337 and was a horse-faced alien created by long-time Thor scribe and artist Walt Simonson. Simonson's goal in making Bill 'ugly' was deliberate: he wanted the reader to first think of him as a villain. Then, after lifting Mjolnir, all physical superficiality would be cast aside and a true heroic spirit emerge. It worked and Beta Ray Bill remains a lasting character in Marvel's pantheon to this day.

Thor image taken from the Marvel website. This image is drawn by Esad Ribic.  
Anyone who is worthy of wielding Mjolnir should wield it, regardless if they're alien, human or god. So I think it's great that Marvel has decided to mix things up and with Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman at the helm of this book, we should all be looking forward to it. 

Cover of Marvel's Thor #337 (November 1983) featuring Beta Ray Bill.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Exploring Japan Through Comics: WGTB Reviews 47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers & Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan

When you think of Japan, you might think of electronics, bullet trains and Mt. Fuji. Or perhaps it’s sushi and the plethora of talented baseball players we have seen in North America in recent decades. Whatever it is one thing is certain: Japan is a fascinating and complex place with remarkable people. I know this personally because in the early 2000s I was fortunate to live and work there for a year. It was truly a memorable experience and I've since always been on the lookout for material on Japan, especially when it relates to its amazing history.  

47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers, Mike Richardson & Stan Sakai, Dark Horse Books, 2014, pp. 152, US$19.99
Which is why when I noticed two graphic novels recently at the local bookstore, I just had to have (and review) them. They were 47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai and published by Dark Horse Comics and Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan by manga legend Shigeru Mizuki and published by Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Both books are enjoyable examinations of two key periods in Japanese history, the former being that of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) and the latter of the early Showa period. "Shōwa" which translated means "enlightened peace" is the posthumous name given to the era of the reign of Emperor Hirohito which lasted from 1926 to 1989.  

Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan, Shigeru Mizuki, Drawn and Quarterly, 2013, pp. 560, C$24.95
It's a truism to say that Japan has a very long and complex history. Indeed, the Emperor (Japan remains the only state to have kept the title "Emperor" for its monarch) claims issue from a line that reaches back five thousand years. The reason for this is that unlike European monarchies which seem to attract dynastic rivalries and wars, revolutions or parliaments who simply select distant relatives over closer yet undesirable ones, (Here I speak of King George I who, upon ascending the British throne, overtook more than fifty other candidates because they were Roman Catholic), the Japanese emperor has always been sacrosanct with the actual power found in the office of "shōgun" (Japanese for "general") who even with dictatorial powers would never consider eliminating the sacred emperor.

Modern Japanese history can be said to begin in the seismic year of 1603, when the warrior Tokugawa Ieyasu was declared Shogun and started a dynasty that would rule Japan until power was taken back by the Emperor over 265 years later in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. In the two and a half centuries the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan the country found a measure of stability and order. The backbone of the the Tokugawa Shogunate were the samurai, a military nobility of warrior-retainers who maintained the feudal system of government and had as their ethos "Bushido", a chivalric concept that stressed loyalty, martial prowess, honour and if need be: death. Indeed, death was often occasioned by one’s own hand in a from of ritual suicide called suppuku. The Tokugawa Shogunate gradually built this system into law and along with the self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world led to a stable yet isolated society that remained largely unchanged until the US Navy arrived in Tokyo harbour in 1853, an event which spurred forth efforts that led to the Meiji Restoration and subsequent modernization.  

47 Ronin is a story that epitomises the samurai ethos of medieval Japan. It tells the story of Lord Asano, a daimyo lord who is called to Edo (Tokyo) in 1701. During this period the law required lords to attend the capital for a period so the Shogun could maintain control over them. While in Edo, Lord Asano does not play the courtier’s game and when he refuses to pay a corrupt official he subsequently becomes the target of provocation and insult until he draws his sword in the Shogun's palace, a crime that comes with the punishment of death. After Asano is forced to commit seppuku, 47 of his loyal retainers, now themselves ronin or masterless samurai plot posthumous revenge and eventually take action. 

A splash from Dark Horse's 47 Ronin

The art is great at conveying feudal Japan without...
The book is an enjoyable book and worthy investigation into Japanese history and samurai culture. Richardson's writing presents an old story in a accessible and amusing way and while I was often told in Japan that it is a country of nuance, this isn't so much the case and anyone interested in Japanese culture can pick it up and enjoy it. Much same can be said for Stan Sakai's art, which, while saying it has a juvenile quality to it would be unfair, it is never-the-less powerful and refined in a uncomplicated way. All of this brings about a collection of artwork that is not over-the-top or silly but a worthy interpretation of a great story. 4/5 STARS 

...the romanticizing that is often found in Western depictions of the samurai culture.

The 47 Ronin is a old and complex tale. "To know this story is to know Japan" reads back cover of the Dark Horse edition. I'm not sure if this is true, but it is a national legend and 47 Ronin is a worthy retelling of it.  
Our second book takes us well past the Meiji Restoration and into the early portion of the reign of Hirohito. By the end of First World War, Japan was starting to flex its geopolitical muscle. A surprise victor in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and entering on the side of the eventual winners of the First World War, Japan was spurred forth by these successes in the early 1900s and this had lasting ramifications. In Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan Shigeru Mizuki examines much of the Japanese aggression of the early 20th century through the eyes of his own childhood. Born in 1922 in a town on the southern edge of the largest island of Honshu, Mizuki's work is both a history of the early Showa era and an autobiography of his early life and the struggles he experienced in a country that was both a expanding and militarizing. It tells a story of not just family and school struggles but also the Japanese response to the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923), the Great Depression, the Washington Naval Treaty, military expansion into Korea and China and ultimately joining the Axis powers in the lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The personal and historical are intertwined in Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan by manga legend Shigeru Mizuke. Here he draws his first day of school.

The historical aspects of the story are made with a non-manga clarity. Here Showa discusses the Great Depression.
I've not enjoyed comic book history like this in a long, long while. Showa is not only a great book, but also a great way to learn about Japan. In an interesting and excellently chosen feature, the funny and more personally inspired vignettes are more cartoonish, whereas more photo-realistic images are chosen for historical events. This all lends itself to textual and pictorial gravitas where it's needed and a sense of humour and valuable comedic insights when they're needed too. Living in a tumultuous and changing economic and political climate is never easy but this book makes fine work of that while at the same time not leaving the reader in a depressed state. All of this leads to a fine work of graphic storytelling that is an amazing combination of politics and personality in the early Showa era.* 4.5/5 STARS

The Washington Naval Treaty, which limited Japanese naval expansion yet was still signed by that country, was denounced and terminated by the government in 1934.  

Like the above image, Showa uses a more photo-realistic vantage to express important events. Here is a depiction of the Japanese invasion of China.
In one of my classes years ago, an especially vocal student told me that I would never be able to truly understand Japan because I was not Japanese. While I suspect this was a true statement, I have never let it stop me from learning about this country. If you're like-minded or simply enjoy good graphic storytelling, then consider picking up either 47 Ronin or Showa. Both are excellent introductions into their respective periods of history for either the casual and serious student of Japan and well worth the read. Thanks again for stopping by WGTB and I hope you're having a great summer.

*In May 2014 a sequel to Showa 1926-1939 called Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan was released by Drawn and Quarterly. It has not yet been read by the reviewer.   

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy Canada Day 2014!

Happy Canada Day to each and every reader of WGTB! Wherever you are -- even if you're not Canadian -- have a great day and, as always, thanks for stopping by.   

Here's a little classic Captain Canuck from comic's late Bronze Age (late 70s/early 80s) to mark the occasion. In my mind there's few things more Canadian than a superhero riding a horse into action or busting up an evil robot with an axe. Cheers!  

Image from Comely Comix Captain Canuck #5 (August/September 1979)

Image from Comely Comix Captain Canuck #11 (September/October 1980)