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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Reviewing Cryptozoic's Batman: The Legend trading cards


Earlier this year I went on a "Batman binge" and feverishly visited every non-sports trading card vendor I could in order to pick up whatever Batman-related trading cards I could find. I purchased quite a few sets. It was only in the last few weeks that I actually sat down to take a look at what I'd purchased (I'm funny like that) and realized that the 2013 Batman: The Legend trading cards were, in fact, published by Cryptozoic. I reviewed a Cryptozoic trading card set back in August, and being somewhat impressed with it, decided to really sit down and scrutinize the Batman: The Legend trading cards I had purchased earlier this year. So now that you have some context, I'm just going to take the plunge...
Cryptographic's Batman: The Legend trading card set advertises 63 cards of all-new original art in the base set and three chase card sub-sets (9 Batmobile foil chase cards, 9 Batcave puzzle cards and 8 Circus of Villains poster chase cards), bringing the entire set to 89 cards. (This doesn't count the 49 different Oversized Art redemption cards, the parallel holofoil base card variants, nor the gazillion artist sketch card chases that are also included in this set. Also, there's an exclusive Printing Plate card and I'm not even sure what that means.)

I wouldn't say that Batman is my favorite DC character, but he is my favorite among DC's "Big Three" [Superman, Wonder Woman & Batman] and probably one of the company's most marketable characters (and thus attainable to collect). There is never a shortage of Batman products/publications on the market in this day and age targeted to all different demographics of collectors/fans. A lot has happened to Batman since I last stopped *really* reading the comic in the mid 1990s; new villains, new allies, new 52. I'd still check in from time-to-time to see what was going on, but it was more of a passive interest rather than a "oh boy, I can't wait to see what happens next issue".

Batman has an incredibly rich legacy spanning as far back as the 1940s, so I'd imagine it would be challenging for Cryptozoic to decide on what to focus on in an 89 card set. This set was released (I'm assuming) to coincide with the release of Christopher Nolan's 2012 The Dark Knight Rises film, when excitement about the film was at a fever pitch. A 63 base card set is pretty tight, so I'm kind of curious on what they decided "made the cut" for being set-worthy.

We've had a few notably good non-movie Batman trading card sets in the past two and a half decades [I'm looking at you Batman: Saga of the Dark Knight and Batman Master Series], so the bar will be set pretty high on this one. These aforementioned sets are also both twenty years (or more) old, so it was time for an update.

[I'm not going to through these card-by-card, just a general overview with some highlights.]

The first eleven cards are Batman Ally characters (including Batman himself), and then we dive right into the iconic Bat Villains. I'm partially scanning these for eighties references, and the first one that comes up is card #5 - Jason Todd.



According to the text on the back of the card, Jason Todd's 1988 death at the hands of the Joker is still being honored. Red Hood and the Outlaws is a book that debuted in 2011's New 52 relaunch, so it looks like Jason Todd's history remained intact. The same goes for Oracle (Barbara Gordon), since the text on the back of her card references her being shot by the Joker. Upon a second glance, Barbara Gordon actually has three cards in this set: one of her as Batgirl, one of her as a wheelchair confined Oracle and another of just her 'standing there looking all healthy' as Barbara Gordon. The cards quickly explain that she was paralyzed, but somehow got her legs restored.


The Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face/Harvey Dent, Poison Ivy and Catwoman/Selina Kyle are covered next. Here are a few samples of the card art:



Now that we've got the (arguably) most iconic Batman-associated characters out of the way, the rest of this base set spends it's remaining 42 cards spotlighting every other important character, item or location associated to the Batman mythos. From here until the end of set, it's all kind of random - but it's an interesting assortment of random.

As far as obscure goes, both Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound each get a card in this set. Bat-Mite was in the New 52. I really don't know if Ace appeared in the New 52, so I'm kind of guessing they included him as a legacy character. I'm always a fan of that stuff.



As mentioned, this base set has a nice assortment of allies and villains. Some of the characters I was (delightfully) surprised to see were The Outsiders, Manhunter (Kate Spencer) and Knightfall Batman:



I really dig that all the base card art is original art. I especially like that they list who drew the card art on the back of the card. This goes a long way, in my opinion, to acknowledging artists and may have me seeking out more of that artist's material. A card that really stood out for me was Jonathan Wayshak's Scarecrow, which had a nice 'mixed media' feel in contrast to all of the other 'clean' illustrations on the majority of the cards.

#30 - Scarecrow (illustrated by Jonathan Wayshak)

The card art is good and the card stock is firm with a glossy finish. There are plenty of full body shots (usually as the character strikes a pose) and the color is very clear. The only artist I was familiar with in the long roster of artists contributing to this base set was Tod Smith (who illustrated DC's Omega Men and Vigilante in the 80s, and you can view more of his art here).

Adam Beechen wrote the copy for the back of the base cards. At first I was going to say that Beechen's text is too short and leaves a lot of unused blank space at the back of the card. Upon further review, I will say that what Beechen does write is very short and concise, giving you the general gist of the character and piquing your interest for more. If you haven't figured it out by now, this set is heavily New 52-centric, so I'm sure one of Beechen's challenges was to keep the card text very broad yet comprehensive enough to not tie down the character to specific era. I would've liked to have seen some sort of 'First appearance:' or 'Significant story-arc:' mention so that I would at least know which comics I should be hunting for if I wanted to read more about this character.

Back of card for #45 - Talon

Overall, this is a very good base set. The original art goes a long way, and in 63 cards they managed to capture a large portion of the most important Batman characters. A few other Bat Allies I would've liked to have seen (in card form): the Creeper, Nemesis, Bat-Cow, Sasha Bordeaux and a few more Batman Inc. members. The Bat villains, who I've always felt were more interesting than Batman himself, were also very well-covered. A few more I would've liked to have seen were Calendar Man, Hugo Strange, Hush, Killer Moth, KGBeast, Mr Zsasz, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh and David Cain. There are so many interesting Bat villains that Cryptozoic could've made a trading card set based on them alone. As mentioned, 63 cards isn't a lot to work with, so I realize Cryptozoic had to tighten their selection criteria.  

I'd recommend this trading card set to a new Batman fan - someone who was just getting into the comics and needed a fairly modern Who's Who with visuals. For the most part, the art is clean and crisp and the text on the back gives a general overview of the character. A serious Batman collector may overlook this base set (unless they are a completionist like myself), because I feel that the real prizes in this collection are the Artist Sketch cards and the Oversized Art cards. We'll talk about those in a minute, but first let's look at the chases...

The Batmobile foil chase cards were an interesting choice for a chase card sub-set.  The Batmobile is one of Batman's most famous gadgets (moreso than his utility belt, I'd say) and definitely gave James Bond's tricked-out car a run for it's money. And we all know that Batman had a lot of different Batmobiles throughout the ages. You could probably make a trading card series simply based on vehicles Batman has driven throughout his career in crime-fighting - Eaglemoss basically did this with it's Batman Automobilia series.

Batmobile chase card BM-6
What's most interesting about the 9-card chase sub-set is that the first 6 cards are independent (as shown above) and the last 3 form to create a triptych of the Batmobile roaring down the street and slamming into Two-Face's rig (not shown). Not quite sure why Cryptozoic didn't decide to go with the full nine-panel splash page route like they took with the second sub-set.


The Batcave puzzle cards are also foil cards, but these 9 chase cards form to reveal a really nice bird's-eye view of the Batcave.

Batcave chase card TBC-02 
I like puzzles, and I like trading cards, and I like trading cards that join to form 9-piece puzzles (especially if they are shiny). So, I am intrigued with the 9-card Batcave sub-set, which does exactly this. I find it amusing that not all the cards in the sub-set are equally detailed/important and I pity the person who pulls a very nondescript part of the Batcave and has one of those "what the hell am I looking at?" moments. Thankfully, there's a bit of text on the back of the cards. You really need all nine cards to complete the entire picture.

The last chase sub-set in this trading card set are the Circus of Villains Posters chase cards. There are 8 of these, and I really can't figure out why Cryptozoic didn't decide to make it an even 9 cards and fill up an entire card sheet. All the 'classical' Batman villains are here: Joker, Mr. Freeze, Penguin, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Posion Ivy, Two-Face, Man-Bat. (Well, looks like Catwoman wasn't included in this one.)


These are actually very nice chase cards and have a very nice look to them. The fact that they're aren't a 9 card set doesn't bother me so much since they don't join to form a puzzle or anything. It's just a set of really nice chase cards.

The parallel holofoil base card variants are a good idea, in theory. They are the holofoil variants of the base cards. At an allocation of 1 in every 3 sealed packs, you're bound to pull a few of these if you purchase a sealed box of these cards. The thing is, not everything looks better with a reflective coating, and I should know since I grew up in the 'gimmick era' of comics. I'm personally way happier with the 'regular' non-holofoil base set. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule - I'm keeping a keen eye open for the holofoil variants of my favorite characters from this set [e.g., #36 - The Outsiders, #39 - Bane], because..well... wow.


Of all the nice things I've outlined in this trading card set, the BIG DEAL are the Artist Sketch Cards. Miranda Charsky, Cryptozoic's Brand Manager, issued a press release when this set was released, stating that "We had the privilege of working with over 140 sketch cards artists for the new set, and in addition to being approved by the creative team at DC, I reviewed every single card with our Art Acquisition Manager George Nadeau to give them a final stamp of approval". You're going to want to buy packs and packs of these cards to pick up the Sketch Artist cards. If you happen to complete the base card set and a few chase sub-sets along the way.. well, what's the harm in that? On that note, if you're looking for the 63-card base set, you'll be able to find on relatively cheap, since I imagine collectors bought boxes and boxes of these cards hoping to pull the Artist Sketch and/or Oversized Art Redemption cards and probably have a few non-holofoil base sets sitting around collecting dust.

I took a quick glance at the Sketch Artist list and only one name popped out at me (Tom Nguyen), the rest of these are complete 'unknowns' to me. (That's not saying that they're good or bad, it's just telling you how "out of the loop" I am on rising sketch artist stars.) The one thing that IS obvious is that these Sketch Artists are Batman fans, and have chosen a large diversity of characters to sketch.

Sketch Artist cards are a big 'hit or miss' for me, personally. To quote Orson Welles: “I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like”, and while a lot of the sketch cards are really nice, some are a little too 'cartoony' or anime for my tastes. If I pulled one of those, I'd be trying to quickly trade it for another sketch I'd prefer to own. Of course, this is just my own personal opinion, and I obviously don't feel the way the majority of collectors feel, since sketch cards for this set go for an average of $50 USD for a card - some as high as $175 USD. That being said, the ones that look great do really really look great and the artist's cover a wide range of characters that the base set seemed to have overlooked:

Nightwing sketch card by Brian Kong. Buddy Prince Batzarro sketch card

ELLIOT FERNANDEZ catwoman sketch card Kevin Gentilcore KGBeast skecth card
Like... wow!



Other than a folded up $100 bill, the Oversized Art Redemption card tops my list for "Things I Hope I Am Lucky Enough to Find In a Pack of Trading Cards Someday". The Oversized Art Redemption card is a regular-sized card you can find in a pack of cards that you mail in for 1 of 49 pieces of Oversized Original Art. As of this writing, according to the Cryptozoic site, 12 of the 49 have yet to be claimed. I've had a chance to glance at some of these pieces (which sell for about $130 USD on e-bay) and these look impressive. These are pretty difficult to find on the secondary market. If I ever manage to snag one, it's going in a frame on the wall of my office for all to admire.

Matias Streb Oversized Art Solomon Grundy card
Here's that Solomon Grundy the base set was missing...

Tim Shay Oversized Art Harley Quinn card
Classical pre-New 52 Harley Quinn - just the way I was first introduced to her

Matias Streb Oversized Art Batman card
What a beauty

Cryptozoic was generous enough to let collectors see ALL of the Artist Sketch cards that are available on their Facebook page. It's worth taking a look at.

-Justin

Distribution as follows:

The Batmobile foil chase cards (1:12)
The Batcave chase cards (1:12)
Circus of Villains poster chase cards (1:24)
Artist Sketch cards (1:24)
Parallel holofoil base card (1:3)
Oversized Art Redemption cards (no clue, but there's only 49 of them)
Printing Plate card (1:576)


[Editor's note: Sometimes people around the web comment on these articles, but they only comment on the platform that linked to the article (e.g., Facebook, Google+). I will re-post the really insightful remarks in the comments section under 'Anonymous']

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

An Interview with Rick Veitch (by Mark Belkin)

This interview conducted, transcribed and copy-edited by Mark Belkin.

Rick Veitch is one of my five favorite creators in comic books. My first experience with Rick's work was on The One published by Epic Comics in 1984. It was mind-blowingly weird and the first "alternative" comic I ever bought. The very first issue of Swamp Thing I ever bought was Swamp Thing #37 (1985), which shared the co distinction of being the first appearance of John Constantine, and the first issue I would purchase of Swamp Thing that Rick Veitch would work on.

I thought she was going to say "Don't Stand So Close To Me".

I was very excited when I discovered he would be taking over illustrating AND writing with issue #65 (1987). Swamp Thing #65 until #87 is one of my favorite runs in all of comic book history, and if you don’t have it, please do yourself a favor and get some issues. He had this way of taking established characters and giving them a subversive and dark, psychedelic twist. There was something about his characters that were separated from their reality, something sad, but also yearning for direction. They yearned for purpose as they manically moved through the story. It always felt like there was some climax that everything twisted was building towards. Something very ancient and cosmic boiling over and waiting to tell you it’s secrets, than laugh at your discomfort after you discover "That’s kind of sick". Everything felt connected on an unconscious level and symbolism was pervasive in every issue. I wasn't completely surprised that we both shared a love for Carl Jung, and I imagine his work pushed me into that direction.

There was an unfortunate end of his run on Swamp Thing. It left me devastated and obsessed for many years. Number 88 would not come out because of behind-the-scenes issues. I dream of one day having the ability to finally release #88, and the 3 or so issues that follow, to complete the story. But that may just be a dream that will never become a reality. The loss of #88 did lead to Rick creating [King Hell Press'Brat Pack and Maximortal, two classic indie limited series', that did as much to entertain as well as comment on the comic book industry.

Rick spoke with DC in the 80s during an appearance at Baltimore Comic Con. The first half an hour we discussed Carl Jung. This is a transcript of the second half, discussing the Joe Kubert school, his days at Epic, Swamp Thing, and what happened at the end.

Mark Belkin: What I first wanted to talk about was your time at the Joe Kubert School and your roommates at the time. Any interesting stories from living with Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, and Tom Yeates?

Rick Veitch: There are so many stories I couldn’t even begin to tell you. But we were very fortunate in 1976 to go to the Kubert school, which not only gave us the training to be cartoonists, but put us right in the geographical area where comics were made at a time when the business of comics was going through a huge transition. The metaphor I often use is that someone who was into folk music in 1962 was lucky enough to end up in Greenwich Village. When we started school, the comics business was in a state of collapse, distribution had failed and many people were saying the business was cooked. We didn’t believe it, we were just young guys who said “Yeah! We’re gonna do comics!” What ended up happening was that comics rebooted itself, by creating a more modern distribution system. A lot of the old guard had left before that happened, so the doors had opened up to us in 1978/1979. We were young guys that right out of art school got gigs with the biggest companies.

Mark: So how did you start living with Yeates, Totleben, and Bissette?

RV: We were very committed and had this great creative and friendly relationship. We knew we had to stay in New Jersey after we graduated to build our careers. So we rented a house which was sort of an art crash pad, and we all helped each other with whatever jobs we could get. Tom Yeates had the most commercial style, and so he got the first job at DC Comics, as regular artist on the newly rebooted Swamp Thing comic. Even though the house broke up I still lived with Tom, his girlfriend and my girlfriend, on Lake Hopatcong in North Jersey. Since I was right there, I would help Tom meet his deadlines. And when John and Steve were in Jersey, they would pitch in and help on Swamp Thing too. So from the start it was sort of like this communal thing. When it was time for Tom to leave the book, he suggested John and Steve. They really wanted to work together as a team, especially on a horror book. They both loved horror comics. Steve especially, he’s like a historian of horror comics, and he wanted to reinvigorate horror comics in America.

I personally at that point was not as enthralled with regular comic books, it just wasn’t what was happening. I was working for Epic Comics and Heavy Metal. I was more interested in Moebius and visionary guys like that. But Steve and John saw the potential and got into it. Both Steve and I ended up back in Vermont, so, I would help him out, just as we’d always done. Fortunes of the book were not looking good, sales kept going down and down, and it looked like Swamp Thing was going to get canceled. As a last ditch effort, DC decided the hire this unknown British writer, Alan Moore. Now that’s the kind of luck Steve is famous for. He came over to my place with the first script he did from Alan, "The Anatomy Lesson", and I got to read it. It was a revelation. Alan had created a new way to work with an artist. His scripts were insanely detailed, but so beautifully realized it didn’t matter. He wrote them like love letters to the artist, he knew everything you’ve ever done and analyzed it brilliantly. He would make light of his own obsession with detail and then toss off something like "don’t worry about all this, you don’t have to do this, do what you think is best". And you’d end up busting your ass to give him exactly what he wants because he’s so clear in how he writes his panel descriptions.

Rick Veitch and John Totleben around this time. Stephen not pictured.

So, based on Alan’s scripts, I became more interested in Swamp Thing and regular comic books as well. There was a great potential future for the art form in Alan’s breakthrough and I wanted to learn as much as I could from it. Steve started to draw Anatomy Lesson, but was running up against the deadline and I helped him out with that first issue. I did about a third of the Anatomy Lesson. And then each subsequent issue Steve would call me in when he needed me to help. Then later, when DC needed someone to do a fill in issue to give Steve a breather, I was one of the guys they would call. My involvement was really a secondary career, I had a really great thing going at Marvel, writing and drawing a creator owned series at Epic. So I didn’t think of it as my money-making career, I really wanted to learn more about this... magic... Alan was conjuring. In the process I got to know the editor, Karen Berger, so it seemed natural that when Steve and John left, that I would become the regular penciller on the book.

Mark: How did that happen?

RV: I think I finished The One and I was looking for work. I was at the DC offices, hanging with Karen (Berger) and said “Why don’t I do Swamp Thing?” and she said “No, no someone else has that.” And she called me a few days later and said “Hey, you got it if you want it”, because I guess whatever they had fell apart. So I picked up as penciller. Totleben, unfortunately, was burned out inking and wanted to leave the book. They brought in Alfredo Alcala, who is fabulous inker, but Totleben had brought this amazing element to it that I would have loved to explore. Alan also decided to take Swamp Thing in a different direction and it became more sci-fi. We started mining the golden age and silver age DC characters.

Mark: Adam Strange…

I felt really bad for Adam. As an adult, I get it so much more.

RV: We both grew up on all those early Silver Age characters, those were our first comics. Bringing them into Swamp Thing was a lot of fun and really formed the beginning of our extensive retro collaborations over the decades.

Mark: So you guys connected, and Swamp Thing has been killed by Luthor and sent through space. He comes back, and there was that issue that was psychedelic, that Totleben did. Then you take over with number 65 as the writer and penciller.

RV: Alan was becoming less and less interested in Swamp Thing. At that point he was also writing The Watchmen and [Eclipse's] Miracleman.

Mark: Which you illustrated for.

I am picturing Kid Miracleman doing horrible things.

RV: He was getting behind on the scripts for Swamp Thing, and I would call Karen (Berger), because I didn’t have a script. And Alan would call the next day with 8 pages written. Over the phone he would give me the first page and then Fed Ex the rest of the pages to me. But he was right up to the deadline for all the things he was handling. I think his main creative thrust at that point was what he was doing with The Watchmen (1986), even more than Miracleman. The Watchmen was his main thing right then.

Mark: Yeah, I imagine so.

RV: So his Swamp Thing tank was kind of running low, but the book was doing well and everyone was happy with it. And, when he left, no one wanted to write it.

Mark: Moore is a hard act to follow.

What a writer must do when following Moore on a book. 

RV: It’s hard following the best. It’s like getting up on stage after the Beatles, what’s the point? But both he and Karen decided I was the person to do it, so they kind of worked on me to consider it. Once I got thinking about it, there were all these things I could do that hadn’t been done yet. So I took it on, thankless job that it was, and I think I did a pretty good book.

Mark: Absolutely, it is one of my favorite comic books runs of all time. So at first you were doing some horror, but you really started exploring the DC Universe. You included Killer Croc, Solomon Grundy, what was the inspiration or what were you thinking at the time, that those were the elements you wanted to explore in Swamp Thing?

Croc really giving Batman the business in Swamp Thing #66.


RV: Well in the late 80’s we were all re-inventing what a commercial comic book could be. It was fun to take an old character who was stale and give them a new dimension. I was actively asking for certain characters, but other writers were doing the same. I really wanted to do Blackhawk but someone else got him.

Mark: Howard Chaykin.

RV: He did a fantastic job too. But since I was finding it difficult to get my mitts on their modern characters, I decided to focus on the really obscure DC characters that were set back in time. I crafted a story arc where Swamp Thing falls back in time, and I was able to play with the war characters, the cowboy characters, the Roman characters, and all the way back.

Mark: And of course this leads into what your interviewer’s most important moment of his childhood was, and its Swamp Thing # 88 never coming out. I was obsessed with your run, and when it didn’t come out, I went to find out why. Someone explained to me that you were not allowed to tell this story you wanted to tell, because of what had happened with The Last Temptation of Christ, and that scared Warner Brothers, so there was nervousness about putting something like that out. I stopped reading Swamp Thing, and honestly comic books in general, which I have started reading again since. Then you yourself did not want to return to DC comics. Could you talk about that for a bit?

RV: Swamp Thing #88 was planned way ahead. The basic idea was Swamp Thing meeting Jesus. DC realized it was a dicey idea to bring in a religious icon. So they asked me to write an outline, which Karen gave to our managing editor Dick Giordano and our publisher, Jeanette Khan. We got the 'ok' to go ahead, but they said they also wanted to see the script in progress. So I wrote the script, they got to see that, and we got the 'ok' again. The story itself doesn’t really do anything outrageous with the figure of Jesus, quite the opposite. Swamp Thing meets him, and gets to be the angel in the Garden of Getsemane. The main thrust of #88 was about The Golden Gladiator and the birth of The Demon. Michael Zulli penciled the book, it was lettered, Tom Sutton started to ink it. It was about a third ways inked when I turned in the cover. The cover was a crucifix with Swamp Thing’s head growing on it, with his head sort of keeled back like a suffering saint on a holy card. A very striking cover.

My comic book holy grail, pun intended.

Mark: It was my background image on my computer for years.

RV: I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently there were a couple of people in the DC offices who were religious and personally objected to that image. They went to Jeanette Khan and Paul Levitz and complained. All I got was a phone call out of the blue from Karen saying “We are not doing that issue, I need a new script in 3 days". And I said "Wait, wait. What’s going on? Whatever is wrong with it, I can fix it". I offered to do whatever it took to fix the issue. And Karen just said "No". And everyone was angry at me. Even Karen.

Mark: Angry?

Rick: I realized later she was angry at her bosses about the situation, and when she talked to me she was angry about that. I thought she was mad at me. I tried every possible ploy to get them to let me fix the script or change the cover. I actually had a conversation with Jeannette Khan, and she just was completely unsupportive. Her attitude was that I was responsible for this big mistake.

I just couldn’t win. I now wish I had been more professional, and asked for a few more months to finish a new script, and finish the whole time travel run. It’s a big hole in my life [Interviewer’s note: Mine too], I had this beautiful ending co-plotted with Neil Gaiman, who was going to take over Swamp Thing after my run. But the whole thing blew up in everybody’s face.

Mark: It’s hard not to respect someone being offended by it. What can you do?

RV: Yeah. Of course.

Mark: I know the issue that the issue will never come out, buttttt do you think the issue will ever come out?

RV: I really hope so! I would happy if it did. More so if I could finish the time travel story!

Mark: Who do I need to petition? Dan Didio? Jim Lee?

RV: Jim Lee and Dan Didio, yeah. They just did a series of other stuff they had originally refused to publish, but not #88. It seems to be the third rail of comics. The sad thing is that Swamp Thing and Abby were such great characters, I had so much more I wanted to do with them. I blame myself that the heart was taken out of those great characters.

Mark: What if #88 had come out? What if Neil Gaiman had taken over the book? Where would things have gone? Certainly would have affected my life because I would have continued reading comics, instead of just being so disappointed I just moved onto other things. I can only imagine how history would have been different.

RV: Its one of my big life regrets. Is that I quit and I didn’t finish that run. We had a heck of a great ending.

Mark: And you moved you on to Brat Pack and Maximortal.

RV: My anger at the situation powered those books. Which helped make them a success. I kind of blew the lid off of what super heroes could be.

One of the most disturbing stories I've ever read.


Mark: Well I think I could spend about 20 years talking to you, but I want to thank you for joining us today.

RV: My pleasure.

You can check out more of what Rick is up to at: http://www.rickveitch.com/

-Mark
Alchemy.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

DC in the 80s interviews Jack C. Harris

October 2016 is going to be an exciting month for Adam Strange. Not only is he appearing in DC's new Hawkman and Adam Strange: Out of Time mini-series, but DC has collected his Silver Age adventures in an Adam Strange: The Silver Age v1 TPB, and has reprinted the (pre-New 52) Infinite Crisis Rann/Thanagar War TPB. We wrote a quick review of everything that happened to Adam Strange in the 80s and it piqued our curiosity — so we managed to catch up with the first writer to introduce the Rann/Thanagar War, Jack C. Harris, and ask him a few question about his love of Adam Strange, his run as editor on late 70s/early 80s Green Lantern v2, and his work on the late 70s/early 80s DC anthology books.

DC in the 80s: You seemed to have a love of Adam Strange and had a clear direction in mind of what you were doing with him (e.g., the late 70s Rann/Thanagar War, the Star Hunters stories that were never printed, and the Green Lantern v2 Adam Strange back-up features). What was your final vision for Adam Strange throughout the 80s, or did it end the way you planned it to?



Jack C. Harris: Adam Strange and Green Lantern were my two favorite comic book heroes. I loved science fiction and those two features were the most science fiction oriented heroes in the DC universe at the time. The original house ad advertising the Adam Strange issues of Showcase was what turned me on to the hero in the first place. I was intrigued by the image of a man leaping off a boat and being struck by a beam of light that transported him to another planet. Unfortunately, I missed those Showcase issues. I was thrilled beyond belief when I saw an Adam cover featured on Mystery In Space #53 (1959).



The comic was already one of my favorites (along with Strange Adventures), but after Adam became a regular, I never missed as issue. He became my all-time favorite when, in Mystery In Space #73 (1962), my letter on the letters page won me Carmine Infantino’s and Murphy Anderson’s original artwork to "The Multiple Menace Weapon", the double-length tale from Mystery In Space #72 (1961).




Of course, my love of the character followed me in my professional career as well. The very first comic book credit I received, 14 years later, happened after I helped writer Cary Bates research Adam Strange for the cross-over adventure in Justice League of America #120 (1975). I was listed as “Adam Strange Consultant” on the first page. Then, in 1978, I got the ultimate thrill by being given the opportunity to write my own Adam Strange adventure when he joined Hawkman in the three-issue Showcase run (#101-103) for the now-legendary Rann-Thanagar War! I had many other plans for the character too numerous to remember. I do recall, however, one epic tale involving a race of super-aliens from the future; a future so far ahead that there are no words to describe just how many years in the future they actually come from. They were the Zetans…and they have traveled back in time to find the being who founded their race — the offspring of Adam Strange and Alanna of Ranagar. In my tale, the Zeta Beam radiation had affected the DNA of their child so it, and all of its descendants had to the power to instantly teleport anywhere in the universe and later, through time! Too bad I never got to write that one!

DC80s: You were editing Green Lantern v2 when Marv Wolfman was writing and introduced the Gordanians and the Omega Men (among other sci-fi elements, including a revival of the Space Ranger). It felt like there was a definitive push to make Green Lantern more 'cosmic oriented' as opposed to the everyman adventures he was sharing with Green Arrow. Was that your doing as editor? Or was this something you and Wolfman sat down together to discuss? I'm imagining Space Ranger was another character you grew up reading...



Harris: I had left Green Lantern by the time the Omega Men came along (my last issue was #140). I always wanted as much science fiction in Green Lantern as possible, since I thought he was a “cosmic” hero. I loved what Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had done with the socially aware Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, but once Green Lantern was solo again, I wanted him more sci-fi. As for Space Ranger, one of the reasons he appeared in Green Lantern was that the copyright on the character was running out and we HAD to use him. I had mixed feelings about the character. I had read him from his beginnings in Showcase. Those early stories were co-written by Gardner Fox and I loved them. However, the series in Tales of the Unexpected never equaled the Showcase run, probably because Fox was no longer involved. The things that bothered me about the character were: no origin story, no clear idea of what his special abilities were, and contrived stories wherein his shape-shifting partner Cryll could become any creature the story needed. I wanted to have Space Ranger appear in a few stories where we could reveal his background.

DC80s: I'm a really big fan of anthology titles, and I remember some of my first comic books being an assortment of DC's House of Mystery and Gold Key's Ripley's Believe It or Not issues. As an editor of DC anthology titles in the late 70s/early 80s, what do you believe led to the decline of anthology books? Or was it just a decline in interest for Mystery/Suspense books in general?


Various Mystery/Suspense DC anthology titles edited by Jack C. Harris in the late 70s/early 80s


Harris: I really have no real answer to that. I can only guess. I would think it might have to do with the drive to company-wide continuity wherein stories and series all existed in the same overall universe. Readers seemed to want longer stories, with developed characters, something that was difficult to do in 6, 8 and 10-page anthology stories. I remember getting letters from fans wondering why the Martians in a science fiction anthology story didn’t look like the Martian Manhunter. The hero anthologies such as Superman Family were created because of economic concerns. It was more profitable to produce one larger book with Lois Lane, Supergirl and Jimmy Olsen stories than it was for each of them to have their own title at the time. Of course, that changed as the industry changed. In the end, anthologies were a product of their times.

DC80s: Is it safe to say that after the DC implosion, anything that was cancelled found it's way into other titles as back-up features? I'm thinking about how DC was charging 10 cents more for issues in 1980, but were including an 8-page back-up feature (ex: OMAC, Airwave, etc)

Harris: Most of the cancelled material appeared elsewhere. At that point, it was cheaper than commissioning new stuff.


DC80s: Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Harris. I look forward to talking to you again in the future.


-Justin


For your interest:

A really thorough and fantastic interview with Jack C. Harris and the Silver Age Sage, courtesy of the WTV-Zone:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A history of Zellers and Batman

I recently had the unmitigated pleasure of winning a complete set of these trading cards on e-bay for a very very low price. (Either the seller underestimated the value of what they were selling, or I'm a fool who overpaid for something with relatively no monetary value to anyone in the world but me. I like to think the former.)

The Batman Returns trading card set issued by Zellers in 1992!




At first glance, this isn't a very good looking set and I can understand why a collector would dismiss this as a mere 'promotional' item — which, for all intents and purposes, it was. (I'm sure the huge 'Zellers' logo on the front of the card gave it away.) The card front featured (as far I can tell) re-used art from the 1992 Topps Stadium Club Batman Returns and/or the 1992 Topps Batman Returns trading card sets and the card back was a bilingual game piece to win a Batman jacket. Additionally, the card stock was incredibly flimsy — on par with the same cardboard used for Quebec scratch-and-win lotto tickets (which seems to be the main driving force behind Quebec's economy). Another detail that seemed to turn off collectors is that, while they the same width as your traditional non-sports trading card, they were a bit taller — so they didn't fit properly in a 9-card plastic display sleeve (a little bit of the top of the card always poked out).

These cards were offered as a promotional giveaway at Zellers' checkout counters every time you bought something in 1992. My information on this campaign is spotty; I read somewhere that one card was issued per week... but that would mean that this promotional campaign lasted 24 weeks (6 months). I remember it running during the Spring and Summer of '92, coinciding with the June release of the Batman Returns film. Once upon a time, it was a joke in my neighborhood trying to trade these away. "I'll trade you my Zellers Batman Returns Batmobile card for your Marvel Series I Mr Fantastic card. ha ha." Nobody wanted these. My neighborhood was filled with Marvel fans and I think I was the only kid who cared about Batman Returns. Not one vendor in my town sold the O-Pee-Chee Batman Returns trading cards, so as far as I knew, this was *it* as far as Batman Returns trading cards went. To make matters worse, nobody kept these (expect for me — and I only had a few) because they were usually crumpled and discarded after you didn't get that missing "B", "A", "T", "M" or "N" you were hoping for. To this day, I still have no clue what the grand-prize Batman jacket looks like. 

This trading card set holds a lot of sentimental value to me. I felt like I had missed out on 1989's Batmania (due to being too young) and really wanted to get in on the ground floor for what I thought would be Batmania's second coming in 1992, so I picked up every Batman Returns-associated freebie I could get my hands on. Zellers seemed to have had a special relationship with Warner Bros./DC comics, as I seem to recall official Batman Returns clothing (i.e., t-shirts and shorts) being exclusively available at Zellers stores. You knew it was 'official' because the clothing garment came with a hologram tag. (Yes, I have some of those hologram tags stored away, too).

Batman Returns t-shirt. Image from thecaptainsvintage.com - they sell lots of cool vintage t-shirts. check em out!
Batman Returns t-shirt sold at Zellers. Loved that art! Wish I still had mine. Image from thecapatainsvintage.com


This wasn't the first Batman promotional blitz Zellers had ever run. Sometime in the late 80s, probably as a lead up to the 1989 Burton film, these animated ads appeared on local TV...

Everything except for the "Riddler reveal" is Ty Templeton's work. How about that?


...and in 1992 Zellers released an exclusive Batman comic book in which the Joker almost achieves his lifelong dream of preventing kids from Montreal, Toronto and Calgary from being able to read.

Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson illustrated the cover. Curt Swan pencilled the interiors. 

I'm remembering this comic book as being part of a promotion with some sort of loose-leaf paper company (possibly Hilroy?), and if you bought a few packs of paper you got this comic book for free. I'm also remembering that we only had French copies at our local Zellers, so nobody really took these seriously. I would've dug deeper into this story, but it just seems like DC comics decided to partner with a successful Canadian retailer to spread awareness about Batman and the upcoming films (in 1989 and 1992, respectively). A smart move on DC's behalf, since it worked on me.


Despite everything I've just recounted to you over these past few paragraphs, the most precious memories these trading cards hold for me is the memory of Zellers — a discount department retailer that no longer exists. If you don't mind, I'm going to switch gears for a minute and tell you about Zellers and what made it important. I've searched the internet and couldn't really find much about it, and feel someone owes Zellers a few words in regards to the impact it made on the lives of small-town Canadian suburbanites.



The Unofficial History of Zellers (as told by someone who lived it)


I don't know when Zellers first appeared in my small hometown of Aylmer, Quebec.  I moved there sometime in 1984, and it was already here when I arrived — so I'm going to guess it appeared sometime in the late 1970s. The actual date it appeared isn't that important. What *is* important is how this discount department store became the center of our community in a very short amount of time.

If you're still reading by this point, it's either because you were a Canadian suburbanite who grew up with a local Zellers of your own, or you grew up in Aylmer, Quebec around the same time that I did (in which I applaud you — maybe you can help corroborate my story.)

In the 1980s, Aylmer was still a relatively small suburban town which was gradually growing. Nearly everybody who lived in Aylmer worked in Ottawa, Ontario (which was about a half an hour drive away).  To paint you a vivid picture, Ottawa was akin to Aylmer the way New York City was to Poughkeepsie — unless you lived in Aylmer(or knew someone who lived there), you really had no special reason to visit.

I wouldn't call Zellers a 'magical place', but it was the only place in town where you could purchase a new pair of Levis jeans, a vinyl record, laundry detergent, an Atari video game and a picture frame all under the same roof. If I had to compare it to something modern, I'd point you towards KmartWal-Mart or Target. Funny story about those Atari games being sold at Zellers in the 80s: apparently they were knock-offs manufactured in Taiwan of "real" Atari games and sold without permission from Atari. Atari eventually made them cease-and-desist. You can read more about it in this AtariAge.com article. I think I may have bought one or two with some of my allowance money at the time. The cartridges looked like this:



I'm trying to go as far back as my memory will allow me. I first remember the Zellers in Aylmer being part of a small strip mall. The strip mall contained at least a grocery store [Super C, I think] and a TD Bank. I vividly remember the TD Bank because my mom worked there. Back in the early-to-mid eighties, the strip mall briefly had a small arcade. I remember this because my mom put up an AMBER alert when I wandered off from her side to go watch kids play at the arcade for several hours. [I think my parents bought me a leash after that incident.] Despite all of the diverse businesses within the strip mall, the most prominent signage was the Zellers logo which could be spotted like a big red beacon from a good 800 yards away. I guess that's why that strip mall, who I had no clue had a real name until about a decade ago, was colloquially known as the "Zellers mall" among us Aylmerites. Located beside the 'Zellers mall', there was a Canadian Tire (basically a department store that sold auto supplies, home and garden accessories, sporting goods, and a few other things that Zellers didn't). About two blocks down from Zellers was the only McDonalds restaurant in town. You can quickly see why the 'Zellers mall' became the nexus of our universe.

To my pre-teen self, Zellers was one of the funnest places you could visit in town. During the late 80s, when Saturday morning cartoons and action figures were in their heyday, Zellers always had the latest toys and action figures in stock. We're talking two or three aisles of floor-to-ceiling action figures, vehicles and playsets. My earliest memory of Zellers involves seeing the Super Powers Collection Batmobile on a shelf and being mesmerized with the box art. A trip to Zellers with a generous aunt or uncle could yield you a new G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe or Transformer action figure. The Zellers toy department was an event in itself, and they put a lot of effort into promoting their vast selection of toys and low low pricing (as evidenced by the aforementioned Batman animated TV spots). Even after I 'outgrew' toys, I would take a quick trip to the toy department and see what I had been denying myself. Zellers was infamous for it's employees not really giving a crap; I remember one outing during my elementary school lunch hour where two fellow classmates decided to test the limits of a display model Stretch Armstrong toy. [Did you know that Stretch Armstrong is filled with a green lubricant-type goo? Well now you know.] As the nineties rolled through, and interest in action figures began to diminish, the toy department started shrinking and the electronics department began growing.

Still mesmerizes me to this day. Image source: www.actiontoys.com

The front entrance to Zellers also had a nice assortment of gumball vending machines — but not the ones that sold gumballs or peanuts (who wanted those?), I mean the *good* ones that, for 25 cents, provided you with slime, a super ball, a dinosaur that grew when you put it in water, or the greatest prize of all... the sticky hand. It was a good spot to waste some quarters for a diversion that would keep you entertained for the afternoon. I was obsessed with these things at one point in my young life, which was one more thing that drew me to Zellers like a magnet.
Sticky Hands! Image source: www.amazon.com

A lot of my fellow elementary school classmates learned how to shoplift at Zellers. A lot of them got caught shoplifting at Zellers, too. Zellers was the only place in Aylmer to shoplift where there weren't enough staff to keep eyes on every corner of the store, and the knickknacks were small enough so that you could potentially pocket something quickly and keep walking. (This would all change when dollar stores started to pop up in the early nineties, btw). I don't think anyone under the age of twelve who ever shoplifted at Zellers ever thought out the consequences of their actions. Our Zellers in Aylmer had a "Six Degrees of Separation" thing going on where there was a good chance that either your neighbor, a relative, or a good friend of your parents worked there (and it would be mortally devastating if you were caught). I think to many pre-teens, shoplifting from Zellers was just a proving ground to see if you had what it took to join a guild of thieves. The management was most likely aware of this and just gave the young offenders a good scaring and a call to their parents, never actually pressing charges. In a way, we can thank the staff at Zellers for scaring Aylmer youth straight and sending them on a righteous path.

Zellers' main competition seemed to be SEARS. Thankfully, there was no SEARS in Aylmer, so our local Zellers had nothing to worry about. SEARS' most effective marketing tactic was a gigantic Christmas Catalog they mailed out every October which contained a whopping 400+ pages of gift ideas for Christmas. SEARS was really trying to secure the 'we have the best selection of toys' title and shamelessly made sure the Christmas Catalog told you so. When I think back on it, mailing out something like that couldn't have been cheap. I have the feeling that Kenner's Return of the Jedi action figures (1983) were exclusively sold at SEARS — so that would be one advantage SEARS had over Zellers.

1987 Canadian SEARS Christmas Catalog. image source: wishbookweb.com

In the early 90s, thanks to progress and the expansion of Aylmer, another mall was built beside the 'Zellers mall'. This mall was known for it's large IGA grocery store and would thus become christened the 'IGA mall'. The IGA mall was popular with the Aylmer youth for a while, since it had a video rental store which had a very small arcade. This didn't last very long, however. Arcades were on the "out" since home video game consoles [i.e., Nintendo, Sega] were now "in". Within half a year, the 'Zellers mall' had regained its throne as the most happenin' place in Aylmer.

As far as a community rallying point, I seem to remember a stroll through the 'Zellers mall' being a pretty eventful occasion on a Friday evening. You literally couldn't get through the mall without running into another classmate from school with their parents. (This was while I was in elementary school, don't forget, so it was still cool to hang out with your parents on a Friday evening.) Off the top of my head I can't remember which community events our local Zellers sponsored, but since Aylmer was big on league events for youth [hockey in the winter, baseball in the summer], I'm sure Zellers had a huge hand in that, Once a year, always during the summer, a traveling carnival would pass through e-mail and set up for one week in the massive joint Canadian Tire/'Zellers mall' parking lot. In retrospect, it was a pretty slipshod setup (i.e., a Tilt-a-Whirl, a Gravitron, a Swing Ride, a really unsafe-looking roller coaster, etc), but this was a pretty big deal to anyone under the age of 10.

I don't have any legacy photos of the 'Zellers mall' circa late 80s/early 90s, so this photo from ici.radio-canada.ca will have to do. This was sometime in the last decade. Probably 2010.
Throughout the end of my elementary school days, the 'Zellers mall' had begun expanding. A new wing was added and more stores had begun to fill out the place. Despite all the cool stuff Zellers sold (ex: Nintendo games, action figures, board games, cassettes and CDs), they never sold comic books. They had a 'book section' that contained French hardcover collected editions of Tintin, Asterix & Obelix, Spirou, Lucky Luke, Safarir (and whatever else young Francophone children grew up reading), but no DC or Marvel. Thankfully, the 'Zellers mall' always had at least one d├ępanneur or avant-garde bookstore (and later a dollar store) where you could get your 'comics fix'.

As time went on, and I became a high school student with a bus pass who wasn't afraid to travel to Ottawa, our local Zellers became less significant to me. (The fact that I was no longer interested in action figures and board games may have also played a factor in that.) While I may have lost touch with it, the Zellers in Aylmer seemed like a 'lock' — something that was always going to be there — it was a part of the town. You could always count on that big red Zellers logo smiling down on you.

The Zellers franchise seemed to have seen it's best days during the eighties and nineties, and struggled financially into the new millennium. By now Wal-Mart had become Zellers' biggest competitor. Were Wal-Mart's prices lower or did Wal-Mart have more stock? I'd say they were comparable. It would seem that Wal-Mart's biggest advantage was it's marketing campaign and that it was 'new and exciting and from the United States', so it must've been better. [rolls eyes] Unironically, in 2011, the Zellers franchise was bought up by the Target Corporation in an acquisition deal that saw about 130 of the 273 Zellers stores converted to Target stores (the rest being sold to other retailers). The Aylmer, Quebec location was not deemed 'financially sustainable' enough to merit a Target. In 2013, our local Zellers closed it's doors for good. Target's acquisition of Zellers was deemed as a "spectacular failure" seeing losses of more than 2 billion dollars during it's 2 year lifespan. The last Target had withdrawn from Canadian soil by mid-2015. What was so bad about Target? Well, having visited it personally, I'd tell you that the prices were not THAT low, the customer service I dealt with were standoffish, and the merchandise wasn't as good as I had expected. GQ magazine, a US publication, had always painted Target as a place to go for affordable designer brands and 'Target exclusives', I saw no such thing — all I saw were things that Zellers normally sold, but for a higher price. Maybe these 'Target exclusives' were only exclusive to the US?

The last time I checked Les Galeries Aylmer, the empty husk of real estate that Zellers had left had been filled by a Montreal clothing and accessories retailer. The mall had become a ghost town; the comic book/gaming store and the tattoo shop had moved to a new location in Aylmer, the Canadian Tire had moved to a more prosperous part of town (next to a Wal-Mart, go figure), and about half of the retail spaces within the mall had been vacated. When Zellers left, it pretty much took away a major hub of activity within the center of Aylmer (which was now called 'Gatineau' as of 2002).

In 2009, St Paul's church was burned to the ground [some claim it was arson, but that's a story for another time].  Built in 1983, St Paul's was one of Aylmer's oldest landmarks and had a very distinct gothic look that brought character (and legacy) to our small town. I spent almost every Sunday for the first fifteen years of my life going to that church. All this to say that I don't miss St Paul's church nearly as much as I miss Zellers.

Photos of St. Paul's church, before and after the 2009 fire.

-Justin



For your interest:


[Editor's note: Sometimes people around the web comment on these articles, but they only comment on the platform that linked to the article (e.g., Facebook, Google+). I will re-post the really insightful remarks in the comments section under 'Anonymous']