Larry Gonick Has a Blog

Raw Materials by Larry Gonick.

From Raw Materials by Larry Gonick for the Discovery Channel website. I enjoyed his past strips for Discover Magazine. I'd like to see those compiled.


Poster Design: Explore. Just Protect Yourself

Two posters illustrated by DC cover artist James Jean for a European NGO. I doubt I'll ever see these plastered around Brisbane or Manila. Link by Mark Frauenfelder.

Print: AIDES: Boy
Print: AIDES: Girl


James Jean explains the creative process involved in the creation of these poster designs in his blog.

AIDES: Girl rejected poster art



Harvey Pekar tells Rob Reiner off, but not to his face.
How not to negotiate with movie studios

In the stories published in the period before the production of the American Splendor movie, Harvey Pekar admitted that he was desperate to sell-out to Hollywood. His living expenses had increased now that he had a foster daughter to take care of. And he finally wanted to retire from his file clerk day job. It seems almost bizarre, but at the time he was even considering an option which would star former SNL cast member Rob Schneider. Pekar finds out that selling-out isn't so easy as it looks. He also started to wonder a lot about his creative legacy. He identified himself with overlooked artists and creators, and probably thought he was going to die in obscurity. The film was eventually made, and won a couple of awards. But it's funny how much worrying about it ever getting made took up so much of his time.


Dororo Vol 1

Dororo Vol. 1 by Osamu Tezuka.
Dororo is a minor work that Osamu Tezuka never got around to finishing. Neither as long-lived as the hugely popular ATOM or Black Jack, nor as ambitious as Adolf or Buddha. But even lesser Tezuka proves to be a very potent read. This was a man brimming with many mad ideas. Dororo may be formulaic entertainment. But it's very well executed formulaic entertainment.

Set during the chaotic period, an ambitious warlord makes a faustian bargain with 48 demons to sacrifice his unborn first child in return for greater political power. The baby boy is born with 48 missing body parts. He is left to die from exposure, but is adopted by a kindly surgeon, who later equips him with various prosthetic substitutes (Not bad for a 15th century physician). The child, named Hyakkimaru, grows into an effective demon hunter hoping to kill the demons who stole his body parts, and restore his body. Early on he meets an orphaned street-smart kid named Dororo. They quickly establish an uneasy but friendly rapport, and he joins Hyakkimaru is his quest because he covets the sword blades he carries.

Hyakkimaru cuts loose
It's truly astonishing how much Tezuka can get away with. The book is filled with so much violence, gore, and nasty supernatural elements, yet feels so thoroughly upbeat. This is in part because Tezuka's art is just so awesome. His monsters and demons are both frightening enough to scare kids while weirdly eccentric enough to amuse older readers. The disfigured baby Hyakkimaru evokes both horror and sympathy for his condition. The adult version makes for a dynamic heroic figure - slashing enemies left and right with katanas hidden inside his prosthetic arms. Tezuka's virtuoso cartooning alone is worth paying the price for this book. Everything from the atmospheric backgrounds to the creature designs are drawn with the confidence of a master comfortable with his craft.

Hyakkimaru and Dororo are easy enough to empathize with. Both are victims of the violent era they live in, and both are looking for ways to rise above their humble beginnings and find personal redemption through hard work. In certain ways they're the template for many shonen heroes that would come afterward. The author's voice clearly sides with the commoners against the samurai class, who are treated as the root of all misery in the world. The protagonists themselves have a lot or reason to be resentful to the samurai class, while enjoying the freedom that comes from their rootless lifestyle.

Hyakkimaru vs Demon Dog
The parts of the volume that don't deal with the characters back-story focus on episodic action-adventure. The first involves a frog monster/faced-shape tumor that has enslaved an entire village. The second is about a warrior forced to kill by a cursed sword. Tezuka doesn't shy away from presenting the carnage. In fact this book is a useful example of how he mixes serious drama with slapstick comedy, oftentimes in the same panel. By this time Tezuka had already developed an array of quirky comic techniques: characters breaking the fourth wall, cartoon self-portraits, anachronistic asides, and cameos by characters from other comics. Thankfully these gimmicks don't distract too much from the main story.

This isn't Osamu Tezuka at his greatest, but it works very well for what it is. Kudos to Vertical for the beautiful paperback packaging. I eagerly await for the rest of the series.


Secret Origins

A Softer World by Emily Horne and Joey Comeau.

This latest strip from the brilliantly sardonic A Softer World reminded me of Mr. Glass from Unbreakable. Yeah, I too think that M. Night Shyamalan is a hack who doesn't understand comics.


Something Old Something Classic

I saw the new Iron Man motion picture recently, and I actually enjoyed it. Most of it had to do with the light touch applied to the plot. Most recent comic book film adaptations have tried to imbue their subject matter with a certain gravitas: The hero is encumbered by a tragic past, has some kind of identity crisis, or is on some kind of quest for revenge. Usually there's some tedious moralizing that accompanies the story. Not that this movie doesn't have a message, or that Tony Stark doesn't have a sense of purpose. Those are staples of the genre. It just doesn't dwell on those bits. There's this unavoidable geopolitical element arising from Stark's career as an arms dealer. And he goes through a conversion experience that leads him to try to rid the world of war, or at least try not to add to it. But incessantly hammering the anti-war message would only heighten the contradictions built into the story. It's about a guy who tries to end war by building the coolest weapon in his private workshop (It's great to be rich). Still the simplistic message has obvious resonance for Americans looking for easy answers. Just don't look at the film too closely.

Then there's the the anti-corporate populist stance presented. Obadiah Shane is the typical evil capitalist who puts the bottom-line before ethical considerations. He berates Tony for not giving his personal creation to Stark Enterprises so the company could profit from it. The irony of the message (no pun intended) comes from the fact that the Iron Man character is a corporate property owned by Marvel, but was the creation of individuals like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck and Larry Lieber working in the 60s. They gave up the rights to their creation to the publisher, and Stan Lee gets to have cameos on all the films.

New Cutie Honey
I also finished watching The early 90s Cutey Honey OVA. I haven't had much prior exposure to this particular Go Nagai creation. This is the Japanese equivalent of a project meant to attract older fanboys, only without the continuity-porn and shared universes that plague American superhero comics. I didn't have to watch the 70s anime or read the manga to see that the OVA was basically a homage to those earlier works. A popular argument in favor of the appeal of Japanese comics is that creator ownership has meant that serials eventually end. But if you're like Nagai, turning your creations into successful ongoing franchises is a perfectly sensible option. Cutey Honey is one of those long-lived properties that has never been successfully transplanted to the English-speaking world. It's a bit too classic for most younger western anime fans. From what I understand she is the original transforming superhero of manga. While transformation is used by some American characters (The original Captain Marvel to name the earliest precedent), transformation has become a staple in and magical girl stories. The transformations in Cutey Honey work on one level as empowering fantasies, and on another as . Every new form is supposed to imbue Honey with new abilities, and she clearly revels in every one of them. But like most superhero costume changes, they seem more aesthetic than functional. That's the fun part of the anime. No two transformation sequences are the same. They're drawn exquisitely with an obvious sexual component.

This is more about exploiting the character's retro charm than about storytelling. The plot is pretty weak. An arch villain is introduced in episode one, but is defeated halfway through the series. The rest of the OVA is composed of disconnected episodes that leave the narrative arc unresolved. Perhaps there were plans for future episodes that never came through. There's definitely a decline in animation quality towards the end. Whatever the case, it feels incomplete. But as someone who grew up watching late 70s anime, the sustained use of a generally light tone and the refusal to update a classic character, or inject adolescent angst and Freudian analysis is much appreciated.


Diana Prince: Wonder Woman Vol 1

Diana Prince: Wonder Woman Vol 1 by Dennis O'Neil, Mike Sekowsky and Dick Giordano.
When dealing with any long running comic book franchise, one tends to remember only the highlights - particularly the attempts to shake-up the status quo in order to reverse creative malaise and flagging sales. DC's marquee female super-hero Wonder Woman, seems especially prone to this re-jiggering. Her mixed attribures and fantastic origins tend to inspire conflicting interpretations. She's perhaps even more of a cypher than her male counterparts Superman and Batman. Is she a diplomat, warrior, princess, an innocent abroad, dominatrix, or a feminist symbol? Possibly the oddest effort to redefine her came when writer Dennis O'Neil was given the chance to overhaul the character. What he and collaborating artists Mike Sekowsky and Dick Giordano did was ditch almost every familiar element and recreate her from the ground-up. Their attempt to modernize Wonder Woman failed commercially, and was eventually retconned out of existence. But DC has republished these issues in two paperbacks. Volume 1 contains issues #178-184, which mainly deal with Diana Prince battling the arch-villain Doctor Cyber.

This period of Wonder Woman's published history is sometimes fondly referred to as the "I-Ching Era." O'Neil and company's basic idea was to remove her mythical powers and turn her into a late 60s definition of a modern woman - essentially a comic book version of . When her beau Steve Trevor is arrested on murder charges, Wonder Woman's testimony at his trial ironically leads to his conviction. Diana undergoes a fashion makeover in order to appear more trendy and discover the true murderer. She soon solves the case and clears Steve's name.

Steve Trevor is a jerk. What the hell does Diana see in him?
However, in the next issue, Steve goes undercover in order to infiltrate Doctor Cyber's criminal organization. Paradise Island is then moved to another dimension in order to recharge its store of magic. Diana chooses to stay on Earth in order to find Steve. Cut-off from her source of power, she quits her job at military intelligence, opens a boutique, and learns karate from I-Ching, a blind Chinese monk whose temple was destroyed by Doctor Cyber. Even without her Amazon abilities she becomes an accomplished fighter within a relatively short span of time.

None of her newly developed skills help save Steve's life when she finally finds him. With his death, Diana has lost the person who first motivated her to leave Paradise Island. She has no love life, no powers, and no double identity. She no longer uses her golden lasso or wears a costume, but dresses in an ever changing wardrobe of fashionable outfits. She drops out of the super-hero community altogether, choosing instead to work with I-Ching in her quest to bring down Dr. Cyber. The new Wonder Woman's world-spanning adventures in this paperback volume fall mostly into the high action/thriller mode of storytelling, but suddenly shift gears to temporarily return Diana back to her mythological roots towards the end of the story arc. It's a curious mix of genres that attempt to expand the limits of Diana's horizons and show the creative staff working hard to find a new direction for her.

Seriously, can you really break bare steel with your bare hands I-Ching? I'd like to see you try.
Not surprisingly, some elements that may have seemed a novelty in 1968 appears rather dated today. The attempt to capture contemporary youth certainly feels quaint, especially the hippie counterculture, street lingo and the overall psychedelic color scheme. The mystique of Asian forms of fighting was on the rise at the time, and lends credulity to the many hand-to-hand combat scenes. Diana is able to dispatch any number of human and non-human opponents with relative ease. I-Ching is the stereotypical wise oriental dispensing stern discipline and cryptic statements in sometimes broken English.

Despite her proficiency, Diana is depicted as an emotionally fragile person, just like a woman. She tolerates all of Steve Trevor's insensitive remarks, even to the point of blaming herself for his shortcomings. After Steve's death, she develops the habit of falling for the wrong type of guy. There's a lot of weeping when they inevitably disappoint her - hardly the image of the strong, independent modern woman. It's not even the more confident and sexually charged figure from creator William Moulton Martson. Sekowsky's art is just as competent, and his faces just and wooden, as it was during his run at Justice League of America, except he gets to draw Diana Prince in chic clothes while performing faux martial arts poses, ready to execute a "karate chop." To be fair, his ambitious staging of action sequences shows the influence of the more dynamic Marvel Comics in-house style of the time.

For a woman who fights crime in a swimsuit, this is dressing conservatively
In hindsight it's easy to see how this depowered Wonder Woman failed to capture the public imagination. This is as radical a re-imagining of the character as possible - One with the most tenuous connection to her past. But turning Diana into a martial arts sleuth that barely interacted with the rest of the DC Universe didn't sit well with established fans (Which included ). Still it says something about the character's unpopularity that DC was willing to let Wonder Woman be re-tooled so extensively. And this is an audacious, and in in it's own right noteworthy, undertaking that's highly unlikely with today's continuity-obsessed market.