Of Marvel Movies and Their Creators

Okay, so I think we’re all aware of the two big news stories this week, but in case you haven’t heard, the long-awaited, much-speculated-about Guardians of the Galaxy film finally got its official movie trailer this week.

Yeah, this movie’s gonna be amazing. But what’s equally amazing and wonderful to me is how many people have been discovering and sharing the story of what happened to team member Rocket Racoon’s creator, writer Bill Mantlo.

Mantlo got in on the ground floor of the fan-turned-pro incursion into comics in the 1970s, quickly becoming famous for his ability to consistently write fill-in stories on any given title and eventually became one of Marvel’s most famous, prolific writers. But because of a head injury brought about by a hit-and-run in 1992, Mantlo has been living with severe disability and has been shunted through the underbelly of the American health care system ever since. You can read more about that here.

As that article mentions, because he created characters like Rocket Racoon and White Tiger before an incentive program was implemented allowing creators of characters to get proceeds from merchandise, Mantlo and his family–who serve as his legal representatives and caretakers–won’t see a dime from the millions of dollars Guardians will no doubt make when it comes out in August.

This is yet another example of what an insightful article at the Escapist yesterday pointed out: comics creators, who over the decades have gone from being creatives just looking for work to fans specifically looking to work in the medium, have been and still are consistently underpaid and mistreated, even as their publishers continue to make millions of dollars from their work. For someone who’s had as much terrible stuff happen to him as Mantlo has, that means everyone may know who you are, but that won’t help you whatsoever.

In an age where fans can easily access a colorist’s profile on deviantART and Transformers writer James Roberts regularly holds court via Twitter, this sort of thing should be swept under the rug and a new paradigm created. But until that happens, Mantlo, and people like him, need your help. You can learn how to donate to Mantlo’s care here.

Moving on to the other big news of the week–the revealed cast for the new Fantastic Four films–I’m reminded of the many, repeated attempts by the family of the great Jack Kirby to get some restitution for Marvel’s terrible mistreatment of such a great talent. Of course, one could make the claim that, as with Mantlo, since Kirby was work-for-hire, his heirs aren’t entitled to compensation. But given how iconic these characters are, dispensation must be made. Justice must be done.

If you’d like to help out other creators, the best resources possible are the Hero Intiative, which helps creators who have fallen on hard times, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which ensures First Amendment protection to all parts of the comics medium.

Yes, I know this is a PSA, but guys, this stuff is important. Before there were superhero movies, there were superhero comics, and before that, there were people. People with ideas that couldn’t be contained and chose to express those ideas through words and art. Thank you.

Adventures in Reporting

So this semester of school, I’m taking a Feature Journalism class. Our first assignment was to find a “place” and find a good angle on it.

Because I am who I am, I decided to write about this great comic shop in downtown Grand Rapids, Vault of Midnight. I went down there this past Saturday, interviewed the employees and store customers, talked with the store’s other co-owner over the phone on Sunday, and wrote the whole thing up in about six hours.

That’d be productive enough, but an additional part of the assignment was that we had to find a publication we thought would be suitable for the piece. I chose The Rapidian, a local newspaper with a volunteer reporting staff that engages in the wider Grand Rapids community. I contacted them about the story, they were interested and they walked me through the steps necessary to get my story up. The piece ran last night, so here you go.

I hope you like reading it as much as I did writing it. My thanks to everyone I talked to as well as my editor, Kolene Allen, for helping me bring this story to everyone. I plan on doing more stories for The Rapidian in the future.

This is also the 200th post here, so WOOO!

Once More Unto The Bleach–Part 1

So I’ve reviewed my fair share of anime on this blog, but it’s not something I’m inherently familiar with.

This is mostly because I grew up on Toonami like everybody else, but when I was 8, we moved and lost Cartoon Network as part of our cable package. So I missed out on a huge chunk of shows and, by the time I got Cartoon Network again a few years later, I had lost interest.

But ever since I got to college and made friends with a whole ton of people who watch anime, I’ve been trying to catch up. Consequently, I’ve made a rule for myself of, every summer, making it through a show that doesn’t run for 200+ episodes (so no Naruto, for instance). It’s usually worked so I’ve kept at it.

But it occurred to me a little while ago that I can’t exactly ignore the existence of long-running shonen (boys’ action) series. After all, it was the success of Dragon Ball Z and its kind that made anime finally break through over here in America. So I resolved to find a show that, in addition to being interesting to me personally, also could be used as an example to see just why people spend years and years following the same genre of show over and over.

Having just finished the first arc, I’m proud to announce a new recurring feature where I examine (almost) every storyline of the long-running, legendary series Bleach!

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Why Bleach instead of another, perhaps more mainstream show? Well, to be honest, this wasn’t a show I was ever interested in. It seemed too convoluted, filled with way too many characters, and too long to ever get into.

But I know a lot of people who read the manga and enjoy it (even though they think it should’ve ended a while ago) and when I discovered the show’s excellent soundtracks by composing legend Shiro Sagisu as well as its bevy of fantastic opening and ending songs, I was intrigued. That, and the story did sound interesting.

Plus, the show is over. Or rather, it’s still being dubbed into English and aired on Adult Swim, but in Japan, it ceased broadcasting in 2012. Furthermore, all the episodes are available in Japanese (w/English subtitles) for free on Hulu, another plus; I prefer official subtitles to ones cranked out by some random fan somewhere and Hulu’s setup meant I could easily burn through episodes at a good pace. Furthermore, the times I had tried watching the show in English, I couldn’t get past Johnny Yong Bosch in the main role; he’s a good actor, and I’ve loved him in other roles (his work in Code Geass is legend) but I just couldn’t buy him here.

To that end, let’s talk about the first arc of Bleach, which Wikipedia tells me is called, in English, “The Substitute.”  (Individual episodes, at least onscreen, do not have titles; instead they’re marked “Bleach 1” for the first episode, “Bleach 2” for the second and so on.) A note on organizing here: I’ll only be reviewing the arcs once I’ve gone all the way through them, so posts for this feature will be sporadic. It’d be crazy and futile to try and do a write-up of every episode, considering the show’s pacing, and I, frankly, don’t have the time to do so. Furthermore, I won’t be covering the filler (that is, anime-original) arcs, mostly because I don’t want to make myself suffer.

Right; let’s get down to it!

So the show opens in modern-day (well, circa 2004) Japan, where 15-year old Ichigo Kurosaki (Masakazu Morita) deals with his wacky dad, his idiot friends, high school and the things that crop up from having the ability to see and talk to spirits. In the first episode, Ichigo beats down some skateboarding punks who have knocked over some flowers in an alleyway put up in memory of a small child who died there. That sequence tells us immediately everything we need to know about our hero. He’s caring, compassionate and will fight anyone who goes after someone he’s sworn to protect. It’s an instantly endearing action, and I applaud the show for starting out this way.

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We learn that Ichigo’s been able to see spirits for as long as he can remember but doesn’t seem fazed by it. At worst, he views the spirits as an annoyance, although, he notes in voiceover, there seem to be more and more of them cropping up lately.

The next day, Ichigo buys flowers to replace the ones that were knocked down but as he’s about to deliver them, he hears the child spirit scream. He runs down the alleyway to find her being chased by a gigantic, mask-wearing monster.

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Just as they’re both about to be devoured, a woman wearing a black kimono and brandishing a sword appears and destroys the monster, then vanishes instantly.

Later that night, Ichigo is in his room, wondering who she was, when she suddenly appears to him. Confused, Ichigo wonders why she’s there, but she doesn’t notice him until he kicks her in the back of the head. Surprised that he can even see her, let alone touch her, the woman– Rukia Kuchiki (Fumiko Orikasa)–explains that she’s not only a Spirit, but a Soul Reaper (Shinigami, or Death God, in Japanese), a spirit charged with sheparding souls to the afterlife and demonstrates her power by binding Ichigo, then performing the Konso ritual on a nearby spirit, purifying the spirit and sending it to the other side, to the world of the Soul Society, the group Rukia belongs to.

Ep320 Rukia Mugshot

She explains that the monster she killed earlier is called a Hollow, a soul that has lost its essence, and seeks only to devour other spirits to increase its own strength. She explains that there’s a huge one in the area that she hasn’t been able to locate due to her senses being tampered with.

Suddenly, another enormous Hollow named Fishbone D (Yutaka Aoyama) appears, having chased the same little girl from earlier, and crashes through the wall of the Kurosaki family’s house, attacking his father (Toshiyuki Morikawa) and sister Karin (Rie Kugimiya) and grabs her twin Yuzu (Tomoe Sakuragawa), dragging her out into the street.

Enraged, Ichigo breaks the binding spell Rukia put him under, something she says shouldn’t even be possible, and attacks Fishbone but to no avail.Rukia saves him, but gets injured in the process. She explains that the only way to defeat a Hollow is with the power of  a Soul Reaper, but in order to gain it, he has to be impaled on her blade, called a Zanpakuto. Ichigo agrees and gets run through; in the process, he accidentally absorbs all of Rukia’s power, instead of just some of it. Regardless, he easily defeats the Hollow, cutting it in half and purifying it.

Astonished at how easily Ichigo defeated such a huge Hollow, as well as absorb all of her power and the fact that he wields such a large Zanpakuto blade, Rukia resolves to stay in the human world through the use of a false body and train Ichigo as a Substitute Soul Reaper until her powers come back. Wanting to protect everyone around him, Ichigo agrees, thus setting the stage for big things to come.

Most of the episodes in this arc are stand-alone, and focus on a monster-of-the-week type scenario while introducing people like Ichigo’s friends Chad (Hiroki Yasumoto) and Orihime (Yuki Matsuoka), all of whom are interesting characters in their own right.

As far as setups to a long show go, this works really well. Nobody feels underdeveloped, the structure is appealing and the fight scenes are glorious. Director Noriyuki Abe and his team at Studio Pierrot are experts at staging this stuff; the subtle lighting they employ when Ichigo shifts from being a human to a soul (and a Soul Reaper) are a nice touch.

The scripts are well-timed and interesting enough to be entertaining on their own, while keeping viewers hooked for what’s to come next. The cast are all fine performers, with Morikawa standing out for making Ichigo’s dad completely goofy, yet understandable. As Rukia, Orikasa is tough as nails. She resists making the character a cliche, and it’s a fascinating performance to hear.

The real star, of course, is Morita, and he owns every minute. We’re never left with any hesitations as to why we should care about Ichigo; he makes someone who could have been a bland hero into a regular teenager, full of contempt, fears and dreams. It’s as astounding performance, and one can see why he won multiple awards for the rule.

I’m excited to start this show, and I hope you are too. A special thanks to the Bleach Wiki, where all the above images are taken from. The next arc, “The Entry,” is 21 episodes, so come back to read all about that soon!

JL8, Justice League and Why I Love the DC Universe

I read a lot of webcomics, as this blog has documented in depth, and one of my favorites, introduced to me this past fall by a friend of mine, is Yale Stewart’s JL8, which imagines a world where Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Power Girl and Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz) not only have their powers, but are all in grade school together at–you guessed it–8 years old.

Stewart’s art is cartoonish and pleasing, and his writing accurately captures what it might be like to be a kid with superpowers, while also incorporating shoutouts to longtime DC fans. After a long hiatus (mostly due to him, among other things, actually getting professional comics work), he started updating again and it’s been great. (If you’re interested, you can start here.)

Besides that, another thing has reminded me of how much I love the DC Universe. And that’s Justice League, the Bruce Timm cartoon that ran for 2 seasons on Cartoon Network before transitioning to Justice League Unlimited for three more seasons.

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I didn’t actually have Cartoon Network when this show came out, but I owned the pilot movie (split into three episodes) and a DVD containing the first 2 stories (which, like every story of this show, are both two-parters) and I loved them, so I’d rewatch them over and over again. I found out both this show and JLU are on Netflix so I’ve been getting back into it, just finishing the first season the other night.

Some people have complained that the show focuses too much on Batman to the detriment of the other heroes, or that Superman is consistently made to look like a loser, and while I get those points, for me, the show encapsulates just why I love the DC Universe.

Despite all the darkness that’s crowded around it in recent decades, the DCU, as a whole, is about people from all over the universe recognizing they have extraordinary abilities and using those to save people, to help people and to inspire them. If comic books are our modern mythology, the DC Universe is a particular strand that’s, for the most part, optimistic. DC heroes may fight or have differences, but they can put them aside whenever people are in danger.

(I should also point out that it truly is an all-encompassing mythology. The Fanholes Podcast discussed recently a twopart miniseries called History of the DC Universe that ties every character (well, in 1986 anyway) into one grand timeline encompassing the history of the universe, and it’s fascinating in its cohesiveness and consistency.)

The sheer icons that stand out–Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and so on–are the easiest to think of, but even the more obscure, like, say, Mr. Terrific, have the same goal in mind. They don’t want to rule or enslave, but they want to guide. They want to protect. They want to help.

It’s that compassion–that resolve to protect everyone or to make sure that what happened one night in Crime Alley never happens to anyone again–that defines these heroes and their stories.

And that’s why I keep coming back.

Ms. Marvel #1

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Marvel Comics has GOT to be feeling on top of the world lately. Their characters are regularly making millions of dollars in films, they’ve got a highly-rated TV show on a major network,  and they continue to make headlines by introducing characters that feel of-the-moment.

Their new volume of Ms. Marvel, which released its 1st issue on Wednesday, features one of the latter, playing more like a young-adult book that just so happens to be set in the Marvel Universe.

You’d think that, given this is technically a “legacy book” (i.e. a new character taking the moniker and costume of an already established hero) a huge amount of backstory would occupy most of the issue. Well, ordinarily, you’d be right, but not here. Instead, writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona introduce the new Ms. Marvel–Kamala Khan, a 16 year-old Pakistani Muslim-American from New Jersey–the same way Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced Spider-Man over 50 years ago: as an awkward teenage outcast.

Only rather than being mocked for being a nerd (although she is one–a funny sequence centers around the fact that she writes Avengers fanfic), Kamala is ostracized for her heritage and beliefs. The requisite bitchy popular girl doesn’t mock her outfit; instead, she cracks jokes about honor killing. Yeah, the phrase “high school is hell” could not be more applicable.

Anyway, throughout this issue, we see Kamala deal with Zoe, the aforementioned queen bee, her friend Nakia (who insists on being called that instead of Kiki to reflect her Turkish heritage), and the Shaggy to her Velma, Bruno, as well as her overbearing parents and her brother, the shiftless, orthodox Aamir. The main conflict doesn’t really center around how Kamala gets her powers, but instead of her sneaking out to go to a party. It’s a conflict a thousand stories told, but the creative team here manages to make everything feel brand new and exciting, not just because of the perspective they’re writing from, but because it rings with authenticity.

Wilson, a lauded writer (her first novel won the 2013 World Fantasy Award) who converted to Islam in college, and has previously written for Vertigo and DC, was the absolute perfect choice to write this book. She marries the general pain of adolescence with the specific viewpoint of someone patronized or ostracized for her faith and heritage and it’s a wonderful, intriguing blend. Kamala is an instantly endearing character who will resonate with people in and out of regular comics fandom.

Alphona’s art reminds me of Chew’s Rob Guillory. It’s cartoony without being cartoonish, vibrant without being flashy, and stylish without a lack of substance. He fully sells this world we’re dropped into, and I sincerely hope he remains on the title for a long time.

As I said earlier, this is technically a legacy book, as Ms. Marvel is the former moniker of Carol Danvers (who you can learn more about here and here) who is now Captain Marvel, and who Kamala idolizes. But honestly, you don’t really need to know ANYTHING about Kamala’s hero to know how much she idolizes her.

This is an excellent jumping-on point and a start to what looks like to be the biggest and best thing to happen to superhero comics in a long time. Check it out!

Exciting Things!

Hey guys, sorry there’s been quite a bit of downtime here. Things are getting a bit nuts school-wise (new semester and all that) and I’m going to try actively harder to plan out posts ahead of time.

In the meantime, here’s some exciting things that have happened or will happen:

  1. Two days ago, I received confirmation that a piece of writing I’m very proud of and had sent out for consideration will be published soon. More details on when and where as they arise!
  2. I replaced my cellphone’s battery. This comes after switching to a smartphone over a year ago and having to replace it over the summer due to a crushed internal microphone, My new battery arrived last night and I got it for under $9. Now I don’t have to deal with nonsense like my phone randomly dying after ten minutes of operation or giving out in the middle of a call. Yay!
  3. One show I don’t think I’ve ever talked about here is the anime Tiger & Bunny. It’s a dang shame I haven’t because that show–a 25-episode anime about superheroes with corporate sponsoring who star on a reality TV show that’s totally free on Hulu— is really, REALLY good. So good, in fact, that I filled out a survey by the show’s North American distributor and dubber, Viz Media (the guys who brought Bleach and Naruto over here), to help bring the series’ upcoming sequel film, Tiger & Bunny: The Rising to American theatres for a special screening. And they are! The film’s coming out here in Michigan March 15, and given that the theatre is two hours away, I’m making a day of it with a whole bunch of people. I’m hoping to rewatch the series subbed (as the film will be, given it’s being released in Japan at the end of this month) before I see the film and I intend to blog about it, so you might want to check that for context before you read my review of the film. Still: anime in a movie theater! Yay!
  4. Beck, one of my genuine creative role models and one of my favorite musicians, if not my favorite, of all time, is finally releasing a new record at the end of the month. Morning Phase, due out on the 25th of this month, is his first album for Capitol Records, his first record in six years since the Danger Mouse-produced Modern Guilt, and is apparently a companion to his astonishing, heartbreaking classic record Sea Change but with a friendlier, more ’70s California sound. Add in this revealing NPR interview and the songs he’s released from it so far, and I’m pumped.
  5. Speaking of Danger Mouse, the guy behind Gnarls Barkley, and easily my favorite record producer, has been called up to the big leagues and has been working (for some time now) on U2’s latest album. No really, the dude who made The Grey Album is now producing for U2. Crazy, huh? Well, a new single, “Invisible,” was premiered during the Super Bowl and made free on iTunes for 24 hours as part of a fund0raising effort by Bank of America and Bono’s own RED foundation. I downloaded it and…it’s pretty good. It’s nice that Danger Mouse found a way to work in his traditional production trappings into the basic U2 mold.

That’s a lot of exciting stuff, huh? Well, tune in tomorrow and Saturday for even more, when I have a review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and a new Star Trek Saturdays, respectively. See you then!