Category Archives: comic books

Bernie Wrightson, RIP.

Legendary comic book artist Bernie Wrightson (sometimes spelled Berni Wrightson) died of brain cancer over the weekend. He was 68.

Today the name most associated with the DC Comics character, Swamp Thing, is Alan Moore. He revamped and revitalized the old monster type, the “swamp monster,” in the Swamp Thing comic book in the late 1980s. This new version of the book led to the creation of other characters like John Constantine and Lucifer, and eventually resulted in DC’s horror/dark fantasy imprint, Vertigo.

However, Alan Moore didn’t create the Swamp Thing. The character got his start at the hands of writer Len Wein, with art by Wrightson, in the early 1970s.

Bernie Wrightson was an amazing artist. All the more so, since he was mainly self-taught. It’s not easy to do horror in comics, and this was especially true back then. The limitations of cheap newsprint paper and a limited color palette meant that it was much harder to get the realistic detail you’d want for convincing gore and viscera.

Wrightson made it look easy. Swamp Thing was set in the Louisiana bayous. The title character was Alec Holland, an unfortunate scientist who was beaten, thrown into the swamp, and left for dead by mobsters (after they’d also killed his wife). Because reasons, Alec survived, but changed into a powerful but horrifying creature, more plant than animal—the description usually found in the pages of each issue of the book was “a moss-encrusted mockery of a man.”

Every panel oozed with atmosphere. You could practically smell the rot; hear the gases bubbling up out of the peat moss. Wrightson’s use of shadows imbued the series with mood and texture, and he could scare the shit out of me even in scenes where nothing particularly scary was going on.

The comic’s word balloons, which Wrightson also drew, were unlike any I’d seen in a comic book before; they were yellow or green, and appeared to be dripping with muck and slime. You could practically smell it. His art was amazing. The Alan Moore era was great, but the Wein/Wrightson original flavor was also uniquely terrific.

After Swamp Thing, Bernie Wrightson is probably best known for his character, Captain Sternn. Captain Sternn appeared in several issues of the comics magazine Heavy Metal, and he also appeared in a segment of the animated Heavy Metal movie from 1981.

Here’s a page spread from an adaptation of the Frankenstein story that Wrightson did. This shows you what his work looked like, and how amazing it was. He did all this with a pencil!

If you look at Wrightson’s credits over time, there’s something you may notice. In the oldest Swamp Thing comics I’ve acquired, he was credited as “Berni Wrightson,” with only the one “e” in his first name. This is how he’s credited throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then, sometime in the 1990s, I began to see his name spelled more conventionally, as “Bernie Wrightson.”

I had the great fortune to meet Bernie when he came to Dragon*Con one year. I didn’t remember the year, but when I heard the news of his death I looked it up: 1995. It seems insane that it could have been that long ago, but I know it must have.

At the Marriott Marquis, one of Dragon*Con’s host hotels, there’s a tenth floor lounge that people, both con attendees and guests, often congregate on after hours. In 1995, wandering through that lounge one night, I met Bernie Wrightson. Kate Worley, co-creator of Omaha, The Cat Dancer, was also there, and I joined the two of them and several other comics fans in a late-night gab session.

I remember Jim Steranko had given a talk that day, and Kate and I talked about how unctuously charming we found him to be. This is how I know the year must have been 1995; it’s the only year Bernie Wrightson, Kate Worley, and Jim Steranko were all there. (In one of the strangenesses that life is woven from, Jim Steranko, the oldest of those three comics professionals (he was born in 1938; Bernie was born in 1948 and Kate in 1958), is now the only one still alive.)

Anyway, Kate and Bernie both turned out to be warm and kind, eager to engage and share ideas with the fans. From some of the horrifying pages he drew in his lifetime, you might not have expected that. The small conversation group sat up and drank and chatted until the wee hours.

When I met Wrightson and realized who he was, there was a first thing I wanted to know. I began our talk like this: “Could I ask you a question?”

He smiled at me. “You’re going to ask me about the spelling of my name, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He told me. He had always been “Bernie Wrightson,” but then in the late 1960s, shortly before he began working in comics, an American diver from Denver, also named Bernie Wrightson, began winning diving contests (meets?) at a high level. He won medals at the Pan American Games in 1967, and then took several gold medals at the 1968 Olympics.

It seemed to the comics artist at the time that the diver was going to become one of those crossover athletes who became more generally famous, like Sonja Henie or Esther Williams. So, rather than actually change his name, he just dropped the “e” from his first name.

The diver turned out not to have big crossover appeal after all. Today, when you read “Olympic diver Bernie Wrightson,” you say, “who?”, and people were already saying that in the 1980s, so eventually the comics artist reclaimed the original spelling of his name.

It’s not much of a story, but it’s charming nonetheless; it’s one of those little grace notes that crosses your mind when you think about a person.

I’ve met many creative people over the years. I’m glad Bernie Wrightson was one of them. Cancer is a terrible disease, every bit as horrible as the fictional horrors he illustrated. I wish it were similarly fictional.

Rest in peace, Berni(e).


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My 2016 Books.

At the end of 2015, I observed that I’d only read ten books for the year, including graphic novels—a record low number since I’ve been keeping a books diary. I had been reading, a lot, but it had mostly been blogs, magazine articles, and single issues of comic books. I resolved to pick up the pace in 2016.

Mission accomplished. I read 26 books in the year just concluded, including graphic novels (but only eight graphic novels, so it’s a pretty substantive list).

The predominant takeaway for the year’s reading is that 2016 was the year I discovered The Expanse. After watching the terrific first season of the television show, I began reading the James S.A. Corey novels on which it’s based. I read the first four, as well as two of the ancillary novellas and a short story also set in that world.

I highly recommend the series to people who enjoy hard science fiction, even though technically I wouldn’t say that’s what The Expanse is. The Expanse is sort of “science fiction science fiction”; the series begins two centuries in the future in a populated solar system that’s a fair extrapolation from the technology we have today—until a particular thing happens that violates physics as we understand it. You’ll know it when it happens, and it’s a thing that will continue to influence the story, but the human characters and institutions react and adapt to that thing as they would in a hard-science fiction universe. It’s all very relatable, and super fun to read.

Each year I try to read a few literary classics that I’d never gotten around to. This year, that project led me to read Dracula, The Wind In The Willows, and Little Women.

I was surprised and delighted by how modern Dracula seems. It’s an epistolary novel, consisting of letters between Jonathan Harker and his fiancée Mina, Dr. Van Helsing and his colleagues, etc. But the story’s also told via newspaper stories and diary entries. It’s a common storytelling technique today; I’d had no idea authors were using it in the nineteenth century.

I liked The Wind In The Willows, that classic of English children’s literature, but now that I’ve read it, I’m astounded that any children could enjoy it. It’s almost entirely devoid of action, and spends most of its pages exhaustively describing Mole and Rat’s picnics and boating excursions.

If Dracula seemed like fashion-forward writing for the Victorian era, Little Women is entirely of its time. I’m glad I read it, and I took some pleasure from the story (that Jo is a real firecracker!), but Twain and Poe were taking much bigger chances, and stretching the bounds of literature. Louisa May Alcott’s writing is safe. I’ve heard she and Twain hated each other’s writing, and I’m not a bit surprised.

In addition to those literary classics, I also read three classics of science fiction: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, and Neuromancer by William Gibson. Yes, I had never read Neuromancer. I can’t read everything within 30 years of when it comes out; give me a break.

Lest Darkness Fall is about a Latin-speaking archeologist who slips back in time to the era of the late Roman Empire, and begins inventing modern tools centuries ahead of their due dates (Arabic numerals, including “0”; the printing press; telescopes) to try to prevent the Fall. I love a good alternate history story, but here’s the thing: de Camp wrote Lest Darkness Fall in the mid-1930s, so reading the book today is like a form of time travel for me as well as the protagonist, because his “present-day” perspective, while much more enlightened than that of the Romans and Goths he meets, still embodies many racist and sexist assumptions that are cringe-worthy today. Which is, for me, another reason to read it. I love to see how the wheel keeps turning: up-to-date becomes old-fashioned in such a short span of time. Reading is itself a sort of time travel.

I had a similar experience reading The Man Who Folded Himself. I also found it to be profoundly creepy, and I’ll say no more about it.

Two short story collections I read in 2016 were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Complete Pat Hobby Stories and Aimee Bender’s The Girl In The Flammable Skirt. I knew about failed, skanky 1930s screenwriter Pat Hobby because of an adaptation of the stories starring Christopher Lloyd that I caught on PBS a few years ago. I love Fitzgerald, and I love stories of the golden age of the silver screen, so it was a no-brainer that eventually I’d absorb this volume. It’s a stitch! The stories are sort of a prose version of the “cringe comedy” seen in TV shows like The Office. Although the style is somewhat dated, I often found myself laughing out loud.

My partner recommended the Aimee Bender book to me; it’s part of her library. The absurdist stories reminded me of those of the late Amanda Davis in her collection, Circling The Drain. According to Google, I’m not the first person to make that comparison. Davis was funnier, though, and at times Bender gets just a little too fey for my tastes.

I closed out the year (more or less) with my annual reread of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I love it—we all know the story, but Dickens’s prose is a joy that’s lost in most TV and movie adaptations. It’s still the only Dickens book I’ve ever read. I resolve to read Bleak House in 2017.

I further resolve to read more books by and about Charles Darwin in 2017.

Not included in the list below, because I spent all of June reading it and am still only a third of the way through it, is Steven Pinker’s doorstop, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My final literary resolution for 2017 is to finish reading this fascinating, if voluminous, volume.

For those who take an interest in such things: 14 of the 26 books on this 2016 list were read on my iPad using the Kindle app.

==========

January

  1. From Personal Ads to Cloning Labs; More Science Cartoons From Sidney Harris by Sidney Harris
  2. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  3. Justice League Volume 4: The Grid by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, & Joe Prado.
  4. Justice League Volume 5: Forever Heroes by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Doug Mahnke, and Rod Reis.

February

  1. Forever Evil: Blight by J.M. DeMatteis, Ray Fawkes, Mikel Janin, Fernando Blanco, Francis Portela, & Vicente Cifuentes.

March

  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

April

  1. Dracula by Bram Stoker.

May

  1. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp.
  2. Forever Evil: Rogues Rebellion by Brian Buccellato, Scott Hepburn, Patrick Zircher, and André Coelhou.
  3. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

July

  1. Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey.
  2. American Vampire Vol. 5 by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Dustin Nguyen.
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

August

  1. [Citation Needed] 2: The Needening: More of The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing by Josh Fruhlinger & Conor Lastowka.

September

  1. Gods of Risk: An Expanse Novella by James S.A. Corey.
  2. Ame-Comi Girls Vol. 3: Earth In Crisis by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Eduardo Francisco, et al.
  3. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling et al.

October

  1. The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold.

November

  1. Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey.
  2. The Complete Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  3. The Churn by James S.A. Corey.

December

  1. Justice League Volume 6: Throne of Atlantis by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Paul Pelletier, and Tony S. Daniel.
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
  3. Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell by Paul Dini and Joe Quinones.
  4. The Girl In The Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender.
  5. Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey.

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Transgender characters in comic books.

alters72dpiThe New York Times recently reported about Alters, a new comic book from a new comic book company, Aftershock Comics, that’s launching in September.

Normally, this isn’t the sort of news that would hit the Times. The hook here is that one of the main characters is transgender. She’s college student Charlie Young, who is just beginning her transition; everyone in her noncostumed identity knows her as male. She only presents as female when she suits up to be the super-heroine, Chalice, who is able to fly by “manipulating gravity.”

Characters who change gender or sex are not new to comics. Most comic books, after all, are science fiction or fantasy by genre, and transformations, either into a differently aged person, an animal or animals, a mythical creature, an extraterrestrial, or from a man into a woman or vice versa, are quite common in science fiction and fantasy, and they can be found all the way back to the earliest days of the medium.

The earliest sex-changing comics character I know of is a Superman villain, a mad scientist who called himself the “Ultra-Humanite.” In an Action Comics storyline beginning in the December 1939 issue, Ultra-Humanite has his brain transplanted from his old, crippled male body into that of a beautiful, fit young actress.

I don’t know if it was ever explained why he chose a female body over a male one, but obviously Ultra-Humanite wasn’t transgender as we understand the term today, i.e. a person with gender dysphoria. His stated objective was to trade up from his aged and frail original body, regardless of gender. The veracity of this interpretation is strengthened by the character’s brain’s later transplantation into the body of a giant, presumably male, albino gorilla. The gender change was simplyultra-humanite3 part and parcel of the escapist strangeness that defines super-hero storytelling, and this was the motivation behind all sex-changing comics characters for the next several decades.

The earliest character I’m aware of in mainstream (Marvel and DC) comics that could truly be described as gender dysphoric is Wanda Mann, a transwoman in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for Vertigo. Vertigo is a mature-readers imprint of DC Comics. Wanda’s storyline was published in 1993. For the most part, Wanda was an informed and respectful portrayal of a transwoman, although in some ways she did embody the sad, “pathetic transsexual” stereotype described by transgender author Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl. Due credit to Gaiman, but we still had a ways to go.

Most of the comics by the “big two” publishers I read nowadays are by DC Comics (including Vertigo); I only follow a handful of Marvel books, so I’m not familiar with any trans characters who may be appearing there.

DC Comics has Alysia Yeoh. She’s a supporting character in Batgirl; she was for a time the roommate of Batgirl’s alter-ego, Barbara Gordon, and is still in the book as the CEO of Barbara’s tech startup. I’m glad that DC has added an openly transgender character to the lineup, but I have to say, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein regarding her hometown of Oakland, that there’s very little “there” there.

Alysia came out to Barbara in a way many of us will recognize: hesitantly, timidly revealing, “I’m transgender, Barbara.” Barbara immediately smiles and hugs her, as any true super-heroine and friend would. And that was the end of it. Her gender identity is never mentioned again.alysiayeohcomposite

Alysia’s face and body look completely cisnormative, which is true for many transwomen, but not most. Storylines involving Alysia have never shown her dealing with transphobia, family or friend nonacceptance, identity document hassles, gender-affirming health care, finding clothes that fit, or any of the myriad other issues that are part of the daily lives of transgender people. It’s like DC wanted credit for filling in the “transgender” box on a diversity checklist, but wasn’t interested in actually telling stories about transgender people.

You could push back on this criticism with, “Alysia is a supporting character. Going into such details would take storytelling time away from Batgirl herself.”

Sure, that’s true—up to a point. I’d respond that it doesn’t take much to establish such details, even for a minor character: stray bits of dialogue here or there; a telling object or item of clothing in the background of a panel. I mean, heck, it has been established that Alysia is a lesbian (and she recently married her fiancée in the book), is originally from Singapore, and has impressive technological and business skills. Narrative real estate could easily have been borrowed from those attributes to tell readers something interesting that arises from Alysia’s transgender status. Especially since the creative team did find room to bring in a villain that was an embarrassing, transphobic stereotype (who never interacted with Alysia).

And yes, Batgirl isn’t about Alysia; it’s about Barbara/Batgirl herself, of course. We wouldn’t want it to be about another character, and Batgirl isn’t transgender.

There is another version of Alysia who appears in DC’s digital-only comic, Bombshells, written by Marguerite Bennett. This Alysia is a teenager during World War 2, and although she’s only one of a much larger cast than Batgirl‘s, Bennett has managed to elaborate on her transness in some of the ways lacking in Batgirl. But digital-only comics are still a novelty, accounting for a tiny fraction of annual comic book sales, and they’re not heavily promoted.

That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Alters. The writer, Paul Jenkins, is a cisgender straight man, but from interviews I’ve read, he seems dedicated to telling Chalice’s story with knowledge and maturity. He shows each of his scripts to a panel of transgender people for feedback, and a transwoman is part of the Alters creative team (the colorist).

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Another important thing to consider with transgender characters is how they’re drawn. I wrote above that Alysia Yeoh’s appearance is cisnormative, while that’s not always true for transgender women in real life. This is a big part of why we complain when cisgender men or women are cast as transgender women in movie and TV roles. The portrayal usually either hews close to the “man in a dress” stereotype, for male actors, or puts silly prosthetic makeup on female actors, as with Felicity Huffman in Transamerica.

Neither course hits the mark; trans people tend to look androgynous in a unique way that’s hard for any cisgender person to mimic. But it should be doable in comics, as long as the artist uses appropriate reference models. Based on the promotional art that’s been released so far, Chalice is drawn to look like the standard conventionally-attractive cisgender woman typified by all super-heroines. Maybe there will be an explanation for that within the story itself; I’ll wait and see.

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