Thursday, September 28, 2006

Graphic Novel Review: Rabbit and Bear Paws

Rabbit and Bear Paws: The Sugar Bush
Written by Christopher Meyer and Chad Solomon
Art by Chad Solomon
Little Spirit Bear Productions
ISBN 0-9739905-0-3
$9.95 Can/$7.95 U.S.

Rabbit and Bear Paws is a weekly webcomic created by Chad Solomon, a member of the Ojibway First Nation. According to its website, "This fresh and funny comic strip for the young and young at heart is created and drawn with the guidance of his community elders in collaboration with writer Christopher Meyer. The first series of comic strips are based upon the teachings of The Seven Grandfathers (wisdom from the Anishinabek Community) and are rapidly gaining enthusiastic fans for their vibrant and entertaining images of Native traditions and oral history."

Rabbit and Bear Paws: The Sugar Bush is a 32-page full-colour graphic novel (in format it is more like a European comics "album"). The book tells the story of two young Ojibwa brothers who use a magic potion and their wits to elude invading English soldiers in 18th-Century Canada. Tiny, fast and prankish, Rabbit is the leader of the two brothers. Rabbit steals his grandfather's potion and transforms himself and Bear Paws, his much larger and slower brother, into animals in order to steal some soup from the village pot. Caught and sent to gather firewood, the pair eventually meet up with a troop of English soldiers and travel all the way to Niagara Falls before escaping with the help of some animal friends. Along the way they recount some stories of the legendary Nanaboozhoo.

In format, basic plot, and character, the book emulates the Asterix and Obelix adventures by Goscinny and Uderzo, right down to the introductory map and character descriptions at the start of the albums. The fact that Rabbit and Bear Paws is an homage bordering on pastiche doesn't mean that it doesn't have some interesting characteristics of its own. Most successful comics franchises have spawned numerous formulaic imitators that have gone on to great successes in their own right, evolving over time into distinct entities. Asterix itself (first published in 1959) is a reworking of Oumpah-pah, the American-Indian character originally created by Goscinny and Uderzo for the U.S. market but published initially in France in 1958 (heck, even Peyo's Smurf albums have a similar theme of magic villages ruled by wise elders and surrounded by many dangers).

But rather than rehearse the many many parallels between Asterix and Rabbit and Bear Paws, I'll mention a few of its more-or-less unique features. What sets Rabbit and Bear Paws apart is a concern with Ojibwa lore and a desire to impart not only the wisdom of the elders but a respect for same. To this end, the adventures of the two titular brothers are laced with references to creation myths, the Wendigo, and lots of talk about respecting nature and helping animals (the magic potion they steal from their grandfather temporarily transforms them into whatever animal they imagine).

Solomon's drawing shows quite a bit of promise: it is fairly accomplished with a slick line and attention to detail in the Uderzo, bigfoot tradition (the colouring in the book, especially the backgrounds, is a lacklustre computerized job). The writing, especially the preachy bits and much of the dialogue, reads as slightly stilted, and lacks the punch, humour and wonderful wordplay of its model, but is still serviceable for a story that is intended (I think) as something of a primer.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Deppey Adopts Gizmo News

Over at Journalista, Dirk Deppey shares some thoughts on the finally-available Sony Reader.

"Oh, and look, Tokyopop’s already signed onboard, albeit with just their OEL offerings. (Of course, clicking on the “View More Manga & Graphic Novels New Releases” button in the graphic-novel section just leads to an error message, something else with which early adopters can identify.) Also recognizable to early adopters: a price tag of $350, surprisingly close to the consumer tipping point, but not quite there yet."

To quote Archie Bunker, "Oh Jeez, I can hardly wait."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Class Conflicts in Superhero Comic Books

Steven at The Roar of Comics makes some interesting points about class in superhero comics, with particular attention to Superman/Clark Kent:

Superman did and does fight for social change. In the Superman Archive, he clearly starts out as a populist hero, a champion of the working class, taking on war profiteers, state-run orphanages, crooked boxing promoters and poor mining conditions. Watch Superman lead a party of upper class twits into a mine and then bury them alive to teach them a lesson and tell me that's not a guy who fights the power.

And today he fights against class elitists like CEO (and ex-PRESIDENT) Lex Luthor and monarchic dictators like Darkseid. Compare that to Batman's typically lower class, obviously criminal, more anarchic villains. Superman fights against those who would impose their own version of order on the world, while Batman fights those who would destroy the order HE imposes on Gotham.

And while Matthew's right, it would be morally repugnant for Superman to enforce social change, Clark Kent can and does champion those changes from his job as a reporter for the Daily Planet.

Clark, after all, had a lower middle class rural upbringing and a strictly middle class life style once he became a reporter. Sure, it's a "glamor" career that makes him somewhat famous, I'm guessing he doesn't actually make that much money (Lois might). He might not have Peter Parker's money problems, but Clark almost certainly knows what it's like to worry about the bills.

But Superman is the exception here, not the rule. By nature, a superhero is someone whose unique abilities places them apart and above, sometimes literally above, most of society. That these unique beings then go on to be vigilantes, placing their own personal definition of justice above that of the police and democratically elected government, is elitist, aristocratic, and borderline fascist (I'm looking at you, Batman).

My own feelings on the issue were sketched out here, but I would tend to disagree: Superman is the basic template for all things superhero, including manifestations of class, and while not exactly aristocratic, he is certainly "king" of the castle in the superhero world and in the real world of corporate properties. Also, I'm not sure what a "class elitist" is but I'm not going to pick favourites in a fight between a middle-class vigilante alien who can make diamonds and a capitalist kingpin.

(All this started from a post about class in the future at Legion Abstract, apparently.)

As well, interested readers should check out this article by the great Jeet Heer on Red Son, a mediocre Superman comic from a few years back that re-imagines The Man of Steel as a communist.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Transogram Kandy Kitchen

Just found this ad from an old Gold Key or Dell Porky Pig comic. The loose page was just fluttering around the deserted Aberfoyle Antiques Market last Wednesday (the market is only open Sundays). Quite odd that this torn comics page was the only piece of litter in the whole place.

Anyway, I had never heard of this toy before --the Transogram Kandy Kitchen. Transogram was one of the greatest U.S. toymakers.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day Cartoons, Comic Books, & Superheroes

(I thought this would be a good time to repost The Working Class Heroes Project from last year:)

"The super-hero comics of the 1940s also had this rough, working class quality. A cartoonist like Jack Kirby is a perfect example. His characters -- Captain America, for example -- were an extension of himself. Kirby was a tough little guy from the streets of New York's lower East Side, and he saw the world in terms of harsh, elemental forces. How do you deal with these forces? You fight back! This was the message of all the comic strips created during the Great Depression of the 1930s, from Popeye to Dick Tracy to Superman." --Robert Crumb, quoted in The R. Crumb Handbook

Working Class Heroes

In honour of Labour Day in Canada and the U.S., a few notes on the dearth of actual, blue-collar workers among the legions of superheroes created since the 1930s. The Working Class Heroes Project is a work in progress.


Most superheroes were created by working-class cartoonists in the sweatshops of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Ironically, very few superheroes are actually working-class. Outside of Bob Burden's
Mystery Men, where are the superheroic truck drivers, mechanics and steelworkers?

While many superheroes held down day-jobs as white-collar workers or professionals of various stripes, very few secret identities would qualify as blue-collar, industrial workers. At their point of origin, and as wish-fulfillment fantasies, superheroes are generally a privileged lot, and seem to fall roughly into four categories: playboy millionaires/royalty; educated professionals (doctors, journalists, pilots, scientists); professional athletes, entertainers, and broadcasters; and agents of the state (soldiers, police).

As Ariel Dorfman writes in The Empire's Old Clothes, "the superhero's triumph is based on the omission of the working class, the elimination of a community or collective which could transform the crisis and give it a meaning or new direction."

Here, then, is a tentative list of the rude mechanicals and producers of wealth who moonlight as superheroes, be they prole or lumpen.

(Thanks to Jeet Heer and the various Oddball Comics and Superman fans who have contributed thoughts on this project).

The List:
Shoeshine Boy/Underdog -- shoeshine boy
Luke Cage/Powerman --Hero for Hire
Johnny Chambers/Johnny Quick --newsreel camera operator
Fred Drake/Stuntman --stuntman and movie double/extra
Pat Dugan/Stripesy --chauffeur to rich kid Sylvester Pemberton (Star-Spangled Kid)
Freddie Freeman/Captain Marvel JR --crippled newspaper delivery boy
Barbara Gordon/Batgirl --librarian
Louise Grant/The Blonde Phantom --secretary to P.I. Mark Mason
Buford T. Hollis/Razorback --truck driver
Ma Hunkel/Red Tornado --housewife/mother/grocery store owner
Kato --limo driver
Dinah Lance/Black Canary --florist
Hollis Mason/Nite Owl I --mechanic
Obelix --menhir delivery man
Peter Parker/Spider-man --photographer
Diana Prince/Wonder Woman --princess who works as nurse
Penrod Pooch/Hong Kong Phooey --janitor
Popeye --sailor
Chuck Taine/Bouncing Boy --delivery boy

Please feel free to add additions or corrections to this list. I am especially interested in heroes from the "Golden Age" (1930s-40s) or earlier (even Hercules cleaned stables --and David herded sheep).

Quirky Caveats

Masked adventurers and comic-strip stars welcome. Please note: for the purposes of this list, I am only interested in heroes with working-class jobs (ie, blue-collar/pink-collar/"proletarian"). I will accept tradespeople, factory workers, farm workers, unemployed/poor, craftsmen, etc. NO white-collar workers, rich people, politicians, government agents, or cops. I will accept Private Eyes and small business owners ("petit bourgeois") in a pinch.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Jerry Siegel's Second Act

Jay Stephens talks about Jerry Siegel's Terror Twins --two beatnik (or are they mod?) supervillains from Gold Key's The Owl-- at his Monsterama blog.

This series of comics is long past the major part of Siegel's very impressive "Second Act" in U.S. Silver Age comics and almost his last stop as a professional writer (the comic is pretty bland but not downright horrible or anything, just stupid, uninspired 1960s "camp" from a broken, middle-aged man) but it still has a certain fascination...

His work from this time period is still very easy to find --most of the non-DC work is not collected and prices on the old comics Siegel worked on are relatively affordable. His work for foreign publishers is harder to find, but Titan books recently published a hardcover collection of his Spider strips.
There is also a fairly thorough bibliography of Siegel here. While my favourite stories remain the Superman family tales from the 1960s, these later efforts still reveal alot of Siegel psychology. You don't get much of the feelings of loss, nostalgia, and aging found in the DC work but more of a sense of earnestness oddly coupled with that lifelong need to parody.