Newsarama


Award-Winning BOXERS AND SAINTS – Gene Luen Yang’s Two-Perspective Historical GN

by Zack Smith, Newsarama Contributor
Date: 29 January 2014 Time: 05:00 PM ET
CREDIT: Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen Yang’s already earned widespread acclaim for everything for such works asAmerican Born Chinese and writing the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels for Dark Horse. His most recent work is actually two works in one, that take two perspectives on a historical event that’s often forgotten in American culture.

Boxers and Saints is a set of two graphic novels from First Second Books that examines the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 from two sides in China – the “Boxers,” the rebels who sought to purge China of foreign influence, including missionaries, they felt were overtaking their culture, and the “Saints,” the Chinese who fought against the Boxers, and were later canonized by the Catholic Church.

Yang’s take on the Boxer Rebellion splits the story across two volumes from both points of view, and offers no easy answers as it examines a painful conflict and a difficult time in history from teenagers caught in its wake. It’s already earned massive acclaim, including earning Yang a second National Book Award Finalist honor, and was picked as one of the best Young Adult books of 2013 – graphic or otherwise – by the New York Times.

We called up Yang to talk about his work, the unique cultural connection between the Boxers and modern comic book fans, how the books were almost presented, and his next graphic novel, a unique take on a superhero 99.9 percent of readers have never heard about.

Read the full interview here!

Scioli’s Ultimate 80s Team-Up: TRANSFORMERS / G.I. JOE

by Zack Smith, Newsarama Contributor
Date: 09 January 2014 Time: 11:00 AM ET
CREDIT: IDW

We’ll be blunt: We love ‘80s cartoons. We love the insane Kirby-style riffs of writer/artist Tom Scioli (Gødland, American Barbarian). So when we found out Scioli was going to be doing a new ongoing Transformers/G.I. Joe series at IDW (co-written with John Barber) starting with a Free Comic Book Day issue that will be in stores in April, we were…enthusiastic, to say the least.

Details on the book are hush-hush and Scioli is finalizing the artwork on everything, but we got him on the line to talk about his love of these characters, from the classic toys to the classic cartoons to the classic comics.

Here now are excerpts from our long, long geek-out session with Scioli on these great characters and how they warped our childhoods, and a look at some of the behind-the-scenes drawing for the upcoming series. If anything, we did learn this: Scioli is bringing a real passion and love for the characters to this book, and you can get a glimpse of it here.

Read the full interview here!

Antony Johnston lights THE FUSE at Image Comics

by Zack Smith, Newsarama Contributor
Date: 03 January 2014 Time: 12:00 PM ET
CREDIT: Image Comics

Antony Johnston is no stranger to scifi worlds with his long-running post-apocalpytic series Wasteland at Oni. Now, the prolific creator is headed offworld with The Fuse, a new SF series from Image Comics, where he also recently launched the fantasy Umbral.

The Fuse, which launches this February, is a crime comic with a SF twist…specifically the setting, one that hasn’t really been depicted in comics before and allows for all manner of unique stories. We got the goods on The Fuse from Johnston, along with some preview art.

Michel Fiffe’s COPRA: the One-Man Written, Drawn, Self-Published Villain Epic

by Zack Smith, Newsarama Contributor
Date: 02 January 2014 Time: 03:00 PM ET
CREDIT: Michel Fiffe

He did it.

In a world where it’s still a great challenge for entire comic book creative teams to get a book out on a regular basis, Michel Fiffe produced 12 issues of his offbeat, action-packed supervillain team Copra entirely on his own…and we mean, he did everything, from story to art to self-publishing outside of the Diamond system employed by almost every comic company.

Let’s take a moment to contemplate that.

Here are the most best things I wrote this past year.  I think this averages out to one great piece per week.  I am pleased by this.

COMIC BOOKS

The Strange History of Marvel Comics’ ULTIMATE ADVENTURES with Hawk-Owl and Woody

Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, Pt.1

Milligan and McCarthy, Pt.2

Jeffrey Brown on VADER’S LITTLE PRINCESS, A MATTER OF LIFE and More

BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES 21st Anniversary

Paul Pope on BATTLING BOY

GRENDEL Retrospective with Matt Wagner, 1

GRENDEL Retrospective, 2

Fantagraphics Reprints Crockett Johnson’s BARNABY

Nick Offerman of PARKS AND RECREATION talks AXE COP, Comics and More

BONE Creator Jeff Smith on Self-Publishing

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Creator George Romero on EMPIRE OF THE DEAD

Jonathan Hickman and Mike Costa on GOD IS DEAD

Priest and Bright on the Return of QUANTUM AND WOODY

TOYS!

The Many (Toy) Faces of Sylvester Stallone

How to Build Your Dragon: Putting Together Mattel’s MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE Classics Granamyr Toy

Tracking down the ADVENTURE TIME Marshall Lee Plush Toy

Sillof and Patton Owsalt’s FASTER, EMPIRE!  STRIKE!  STRIKE!

Masterpiece Transformers Soundwave

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Caldecott Winner David Wiesner on MR. WUFFLES

Jhn Agee (LITTLE SANTA) and Loren Long (OTIS)

A look at the musical MARY POPPINS and P.L. Travers’ original books (done in Feb., before SAVING MR. BANKS came out)

Jan Brett on CINDERS

Phyllis Rowan’s THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY

THE DARK IS RISING Author Susan Cooper

In Memorial: E.L. Konigsburg, Author of FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER

Zilpha Keatley Snyder on BELOW THE ROOT

Weird Picture Books That I Enjoy

More Weird Children’s Books: The Mushroom Planet, Chicken Trek, Suzuki Beane and More

LOCAL NORTH CAROLINA ARTS

Nice Price Books in Carrboro to Close

SERENA Author Ron Rash on NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY

Craig Zobel on Directing COMPLIANCE

Golden Age Bakery Puts Comics on Cookies

Elizabeth Strout on THE BURGESS BOYS

TV Production in NC with HOMELAND, BANSHEE, UNDER THE DOME and More

INSPECTOR LYNLEY Author Elizabeth George Visits

Attempting to understand CATS in a local production

Local Produce Delivery Startups

COMICS I WROTE:

Unseen REGULAR SHOW Script: “Bad Grammar”

My REGULAR SHOW story “Sombrero World”

Interview on “Sombrero World” in USA Today

Another Interview on “SomBrero World” in the News and Observer

My ADVENTURE TIME Story “Grocery Time” (Pt.1)

My ADVENTURE TIME Story “Grocery Time” (Pt.2)

FREE COMIC: “Decaffeinated” with Thomas Boatwright

MISC. TV

Shows You WON’T See This Fall

31 Loose Ends from Season 4 of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Dean Norris Talks BREAKING BAD and UNDER THE DOME

Hugh Dancy on HANNIBAL: Season One

Why I Heart Megatron: A Transformers Post

400 or so SIMPSONS Quotes

More than 60 BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD Videos

The anniversary of the end of ST. ELSEWHERE

My Strange Obsession with LAW & ORDER: SVU

MISC. ESSAYS/ORIGINAL COMPILATION POSTS

THE HEARTBREAK KID, SAVE THE DATE and other films for singles on Valentine’s Day

Thunderbirds are Go(ne): A Tribute to Gerry Anderson

Miami Connection: All 230+ Things I Love About this Film

http://zacksmithwriter.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/400-or-so-simpsons-quotes/

Doing a clean-up and wanted to link some recent work.  I got to talk with some really brilliant people for a couple places.  My ego is inflated!

A chat with BONE Creator Jeff Smith on his work and being a self-publisher in the 1990s

Got to talk with Caldecott Winner David Wiesner on his new book MR. WUFFLES!

Here’s a (very quick) interview I did with George A. Romero on his new EMPIRE OF THE DEAD miniseries.

A talk with Elizabeth George, creator of INSPECTOR LYNLEY

THE DARK IS RISING Author Susan Cooper on her new book and the power of her series

Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy on the New Dark Horse Retrospective of their work, Pt.1

Milligan and McCarthy, Pt.2

Richard Kadrey on Sandman Slim and KILL CITY BLUES

A Very Silly Piece with Jonathan Hickman and Mike Costa on GOD IS DEAD.

QUANTUM AND WOODY Creators Christopher Priest and M.D. Bright talk returning to the characters

A recap of a BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES Anniversary Panel from San Diego Comic-Con

Realized I hadn’t done a compilation of all the stuff I’d had posted in a while.  Here’s a quick gathering.

INDY WEEK:

Mitch O’Connell Interview

Comic Book Events in the Triangle

In-Depth Look at Television Production in North Carolina with UNDER THE DOME, BANSHEE, HOMELAND and More

NEWSARAMA:

Micahel Kaluta on STARSTRUCK

Graham Nolan on Bane

Ian Flynn on NEW CRUSADERS

GRENDEL All-Star Retrospective, 1

GRENDEL All-Star Retrospective, 2

Paul Pope on BATTLING BOY

Andy Ristaino on NIGHT OF THE LIVING VIDIOTS

DC vs. Masters of the Universe

Jeffrey Brown on A MATTER OF LIFE and Star Wars

 

MTV GEEK POSTS:

New Batman ’66 Figures Are Bat-Awesome

10 New TV Shows You WON’T See This Fall

Daft Punk Figures Do Everything But Make Music

Custom Mr. T Transformer

Japanese Human Doll Cloning

Hot Toys Mime Joker

Sideshow Collectibles Darth Vader

“Realm of the Underworld:” The Greatest 1980s Action Figure Line Never Made

Toy News Roundup: Friday the 13th, Super Best Friends and More

31 Loose Ends from “Arrested Development” Season 4

Toy News Roundup: Axe Cop, Walking Dead and More

New S.H. Figuarts Sailor Moon Figure Pics

Hot Toys SDCC 

Man of Steel’s Namek

Hasbro SDCC 2013 Exclusives

Toy News Roundup: Man of Steel, Power Rangers

Retro Mego Toys

SDCC Shazam Figure

Spider-Man 2099 and Hellcat Statues

New Man of Steel Movie Masters Figures

Six Million Dollar Man Figure

Toy News Roundup: Walking Dead, Big Bang Theory

Transformers Masterpiece Soundwave

INTERVIEW: Dean Norris on UNDER THE DOME, BREAKING BAD

NECA Simpsons Guest Star Figures

Toy News Roundup: Power Rangers, World War Z

INTERVIEW: Mike Vogel on UNDER THE DOME

Life-Sized Ark of the Covenant Replica

MattyCollector Ghostbusters Ecto Goggles

Jim Lee Superman and Batman Super Alloy Figures

Toy News Roundup: Gremlins, Doctor Who, Masters of the Universe

 

As I’ve had some articles published all over the place recently, figured it was time to start a new compilation post.

Chris Rousseau sorts through records at Nice Price Books in Carrboro.

Very Sad: Beloved local used bookstore Nice Price Books is closing, and I talked to them and several other used bookstores to get the reasons why.

Jonathan M. Katz - Zach Hetrick

Here’s an interview I did with reporter Jonathan M. Katz about his new book on life in Haiti and the failed policies of relief efforts, THE BIG TRUCK THAT WENT BY.

Madeline Trumble and Con OShea-Creal as Mary Poppins and Bert

Here’s a strangely detailed review I did of the touring production of Disney’s MARY POPPINS, and how it compares to both the original books and the film.

LIzzy Caplan and Geoffrey Arend in SAVE THE DATE

For Valentine’s Day: A look at some anti-romantic movies, SAVE THE DATE, CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER, THE HEARTBREAK KID, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN and MARGARET.

Kyle Baker recently put his classic graphic novels including WHY I HATE SATURN and THE COWBOY WALLY SHOW online for free, and here’s my look at why these are worth checking out.

MOL_salesproof_3pass.jpg__approved_jacket___1_.jpg

I interviewed  Brandon Sanderson on his besteselling conclusion to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, A MEMORY OF LIGHT!

Ron Rash - Photo by Mark Haskett

Here’s my interview with SERENA author Ron Rash on his new short story collection NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY!

George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" plays Saturday at 7 p.m.

A look at the films of the Nevermore Film Festival in Durham this weekend, including JOHN DIES AT THE END and a 35-mm print of the original DAWN OF THE DEAD!

My new interview with Ryan Browne of the webcomic GOD HATES ASTRONAUTS on his Kickstarter Campaign!

Here’s my talk with Michel Fiffe on his acclaimed self-published comic COPRA!

My interview with the creators of the webcomic TRIP FANTASTIC!

The creators of HACK/SLASH and HOAX HUNTERS Pay Tribute to Fake 1980s Toys with MINI COMICS INDLUDED on Kickstarter!

The Book of Mormon comes to Durham Feb. 11-23, 2014.

A Look at the Durham Performing Arts Center’s New Broadway Series!

Follow-up to earlier piece: Nice Price Books is having a closing sale that will help raise money for the Chapel Hill Library.

A review of a local production of the play THE LAST FIVE YEARS!

Jeffrey Brown talks the adorable VADER’S LITTLE PRINCESS!

A look at the many (many, many…) faces of Superman’s foe General Zod!

NEW TOY BLOGS:
ARCHER ACTION FIGURES ARE COMING!

Archer_30_Bang_FXWEB_1280x720_13009987726

My Little Pony Meets Doctor Who with “Doctor Whooves!”

Coming soon: New JURASSIC PARK Toys!

New “Presidential Monsters” with Baracula!

The Many (Toy) Faces of Slyvester Stallone

New Batman “Movie Masters” Trilogy 3-Pack!

The Return of Captain Power Toys?

Some high-end pieces of IRON MAN 3 Merchandise!

Check Out This Chic Han Solo in Carbonite Business Card Case!

Yes, they finally made a figure of Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING

New WALKING DEAD Michonne 3-Pack

New Target “New 52″ Justice League 7-Pack!

Title

How to Build Your Dragon — Getting Down with Masters of the Universe Classics’ Granamyr!

New Reverse-Flash FUNKO at Dallas Comic-Con!

These ‘Alien” Pint Glasses are Xenomorphically Awesome!

New WALKING DEAD toys from FUNKO!

(ZACK NOTE: The following is an essay I wrote for an anthology about Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Universe last year.  The anthology has been indefinitely delayed, and those in charge say that they have no trouble with my posting this publicly.

(Duncan Fegredo, who generously did an email interview for the essay and provided me with some designs, has given me permission to publish this here,  “as long as I don’t have to waste any more of my life on that book.”  [direct quote]

(This whole thing led to my doing a very good one-on-one panel with Duncan discussing his career at NC Comiccon last fall, so time well spent.  But I hate to let writing go to waste.

(And so, here it is: More thoughts on one of Marvel Comics’ most reviled books than have ever been recorded in one place, along with some of Duncan Fegredo’s original designs, provided by him.  All designs, characters, etc. are copyright/TM Marvel Comics, I assure you I don’t want them.)

In Defense of Ron Zimmerman: The Strange Story of Hawk-Owl, Woody, U-Decide and Ultimate Adventures

“…what an unbelievable waste of time that book was…”

                        –Duncan Fegredo, artist, Ultimate Adventures

Some Hank Faces.

Some Hank Faces.

On October 25, 2001, Marvel Comics issued a press release heralding the hiring of Ron Zimmerman, a TV writer best known as a regular contributor to Howard Stern’s radio program, as a writer on a variety of freelance projects.  “Welcome to The House, Ron – we think you’ll find it even more strange than Hollywood!” it extolled.

Little did he know.

Two and a half years later, Zimmerman would be one of the most reviled names at Marvel, inciting a degree of Internet hatred so great that Joe Quesada himself would step in to publicly defend him.  His legacy would be some of the strangest comics ever put out by the House of Ideas, including perhaps the most obscure Ultimate Universe book, Ultimate Adventures.

The true story of Ultimate Adventures is one that represents the nexus of Marvel’s output and attitude in the early 2000s, a combination of creativity and aggression that proved both admirable and regrettable.

It is a book that is the one attempt at launching an Ultimate Universe title with original characters with no counterparts in the “mainstream” Marvel Universe.  It is the product of a creator whose hiring is widely perceived as one of Joe Quesada’s greatest follies.  It was picked by the website Comics Alliance as one of the worst comic books of the past decade.

Ultimate Adventures was all of these things.  But the truth, as they say, is even stranger.

Here is the tale of Ultimate Adventures, of the book itself and of its creation. Fasten your seatbelts.

Ultimate Adventures was a fairly simple concept: In a comical/Harry Potter-esque variation on the Batman and Robin story, a sassy orphan named Hank Kipple gets adopted by Jack Danner, a billionaire who’s secretly a vigilante called Hawk-Owl.  Hank discovers he’s being groomed to be Hawk-Owl’s sidekick Woody[1].

Hank’s initially against this, but comes around and helps Hawk-Owl defeat a school principal who’s gone mad and become a super-villain.  The story climaxes with the two turning into a crime-fighting team while learning how to function as a family and crime-fighting unit.

Not too bad so far.  The concept has its gaps in logic, but it’s a nice wish-fulfillment story with an emotional core.  Ignoring that kid-sidekick concepts have come under scrutiny for their child endangerment and potentially pedophilic subtexts over the last few decades, it’s an idea that could work with the proper execution.

Unfortunately, Ultimate Adventures had problems that had nothing to do with its execution.

A Duncan Fegredo design for Hawk-Owl.

A Duncan Fegredo design for Hawk-Owl.

Let’s back up a bit.

Joe Quesada’s arrival at Marvel in the late 1990s was a breath of creative oxygen.  There’s no other way to put it.  After peaking in the early 1990s with a variety of artist-driven books, the company saw a downturn when most of those artists left to form Image Comics.

The company then spent most of the next decade trying to revitalize their core heroes by making them seem more like the Image Comics characters, resulting in such attempted reboots as Spider-Man finding out he was really a clone of himself (long story) and utterly plummeting sales.

By the late 1990s, the company was literally bankrupt, and came to the belated realization that quality writers and artists paired together was the key to regaining their readership.  Quesada’s sub-line of “Marvel Knights” was a ¾ success (the Punisher miniseries where he became an angelic assassin was quickly swept under the rug), and he quickly rose to prominence within the company.

In tandem with Marvel Executive Vice President Bill Jemas, Quesada helped restore Marvel to a creative force.  Current storylines were quickly collected into trade paperbacks, while older storylines long out of print were finally collected as well.

Film versions of the Marvel characters were produced in close coordination with the comic creators, and accessible storylines and materials were made available with each new release.  Distribution of trades and single issues regained a presence in bookstores and newsstands.  And most importantly, new and eclectic names were put in charge of the established characters.

Quesada made a statement with his first Marvel Knights book, the run on Daredevil that he illustrated off a script by filmmaker Kevin Smith.  Smith had included many comic references in his work and done some books with his characters for Oni Press, but he was hardly a name guaranteed to sell copies.  It was a stab at bringing in a creator with an existing fan base outside of mainstream superheroes, and the gamble paid off.

Marvel writers during this period usually came from one of two backgrounds: Either they had proven their credibility through a few small-press books, or they came from some sort of non-comics background – TV writing, novels, feature films – that could potentially bring a new voice and/or style to preexisting concepts.

Both choices yielded some eclectic, often fascinating results.  Most relevant to this book was the decision to get Brian Michael Bendis to script Ultimate Spider-Man.  Not only was the idea of a modern-day reboot of Spider-Man widely seen as a fool’s errand in the wake of such unsuccessful efforts as John Byrne’s widely-derided Spider-Man: Year One and the aforementioned clone storyline but Bendis was at that point mainly known for doing dark, dialogue-heavy crime books through such smaller companies as Image.

The sullen Hank Kipple, and another design.

The sullen Hank Kipple, and another design.

Putting a small-press writer in charge of a major superhero launch was at that point a risky move, and it paid dividends, further paving the way for such writers as Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker to become major voices at Marvel.

The second choice of bringing in non-comics writers provided its own peaks and valleys.  J. Michael Straczynski, who had a major following from his TV series Babylon 5, had already scripted several series at Image, and brought a large audience to his work on Amazing Spider-Man, albeit with mixed critical results.  Joss Whedon, who’d also scripted some comics set in the universe of his series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, likewise brought his following to his work on Astonishing X-Men.

There is something worth noting here: Straczynski, Whedon and the aforementioned Kevin Smith all had some experience writing comic books and fan followings based on characters they had created before they started writing for Marvel.

For that matter, they’d also done works that reflected the storylines often found in super-hero comics – even Smith, who’d mostly done relationship-based films, had worked on screenplays for such concepts as The Six Million Dollar Man.

Hawk-Owl and Woody.

Hawk-Owl and Woody.

When Ron Zimmerman came to Marvel, the press release trumpeting his arrival evoked the names of Smith and Straczynski, but neglected to mention several other things, most notably:

1)      He hadn’t written any comics before.

2)      He had mostly written comedy.

3)      His name wasn’t associated with anything he had created on his own, and was likely to be unfamiliar to anyone who didn’t listen to Howard Stern.

In other words, Zimmerman arrived with a fair amount of hype, but was also in a situation where he had to learn a new format of writing.  In addition, his background in comedy meant that his skills were mostly in more dialogue-based stories, something difficult to pull off in the limited space of sequential storytelling.

And he didn’t have the goodwill that someone like Smith, Straczynski or Whedon could rely on in case his work put off fans used to a more traditional style of superhero storytelling.

It was perhaps because of these things that Zimmerman’s work gained a reputation among comic book fans.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a particularly good reputation.

Zimmerman’s initial stories with the Punisher and Spider-Man were illustrated by such Herculean talents as Darick Robertson, John McCrea, and Sean Phillips, and weren’t the worst thing Marvel had published.  That’s not to say it was particularly good.

12His stories mostly played like strange digressions, with such tales as the Punisher going back in time to assassinate Al Capone (and it all turning out to be a dream), Spider-Man dealing with the Scorpion on a charity outing (with an odd cameo by a family drawn to look like the Simpsons), and Spidey’s foes commiserating in a super-villain bar.

The last tale was sort of amusing, but overall these books came across as insubstantial.  There was rarely any drama, the humor often fell flat, and by the time Zimmerman got to the heavily-promoted Get Kraven limited series, casting the son of an old Spider-Foe as a Hollywood player, the negative feedback was starting to come to a boil.

Sure, online fans went off many, many times about, say, Straczynki’s Spider-Man stories, but he had some preexisting goodwill to rely upon, along with a strong understanding of the fundamentals of comic book scripting.  Zimmerman didn’t have that crutch.  He had to learn how to adapt to comics writing as he was being published, and his shortcomings were both public and scrutinized by fandom.

By late summer 2002, it was reported by Rich Johnston in his “Lying in the Gutters” gossip column on the Comic Book Resources website that Zimmerman had been banned from a Spider-Man message board after publicly posting in protest of negative reviews of his work that painted him, in his words, as “the new reference for all that is bad in the spider-world.[2]

So ugly did things get that Joe Quesada himself then posted on that board on Zimmerman’s behalf, arguing that Zimmerman came from a similar background as Kevin Smith, but didn’t have the pre-existing “cult of personality” to defend him.

Quesada  praised Zimmerman’s intense love and fandom for comics, pointed out that he was choosing to write comics over higher-paying TV gigs, and that those protesting his background as a “Hollywood writer” were practicing a “double standard:”

“If Ron would have been advertised as just a new guy we discovered as opposed to a Hollywood guy, he would have been treated so much nicer by the wannabes. I’m not saying that everyone would have enjoyed ever (sic) single thing he did, but I can assure you that people would not be calling him ‘The Devil.'”

Quesada wasn’t necessarily wrong, but the message board meltdown illustrated how things had gotten to an ugly point.  From Newsarama to Comic Book Resources to Marvel.com, message boards were filled with endless complaints about Zimmerman’s books.

While Marvel had helped revitalize many of their books by bringing in creators with fan followings, here was an increasingly public backlash.  Zimmerman’s name was close to becoming the comic book equivalent of box office poison.

As such, there was a bit of pressure to prove Quesada’s faith in Zimmerman was justified.  The most-spotlighted effort was a Zimmerman-scripted mature readers mini-series called Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather!, which “revealed” a classic Marvel Western character was gay.  It featured excellent art from veteran John Severin and received a great deal of mainstream media coverage, mostly involving anti-gay advocates protesting its content.

They needn’t have bothered – the book’s gay content was off-camera and implied, while the actual story was a straightforward parody of Shane and Little House on the Prairie.  The humor mostly relied on the Kid engaging in over-the-top effeminate behavior, and other characters standing around awkwardly.  It was more solid than Zimmerman’s previous work, but it was most notable for not being offensive.  If anything, gay people were more likely to be offended than straights by the gay panic humor.

Then came “U-Decide” and Ultimate Adventures.

Some Hawk-Owl helmets.

Some Hawk-Owl helmets.

In short: Peter David, a fan-favorite writer with a long history at Marvel, publicly protested when the company announced they were raising the price on his book Captain Marvel from $2.25 to $2.99, a move he decried would help kill it.

Quesada countered this protest by pointing out that David’s old-school continuity-heavy take on the Marvel Universe was too insular to bring in new readers, Bill Jemas joined in the argument seemingly for the hell of it, and the whole thing came down to a relaunched version of Captain Marvel being pitted against two other books, and the creator of the lowest-selling book getting a carnival-style humiliation at a comics convention.

Jemas’s contribution was Marville, a brazen series of swipes at DC Comics that ended in a pitch for Marvel’s unsuccessful revival of its Epic Comics line.

Quesada’s contribution was Ultimate Adventures, a book by Zimmerman that he would personally edit.  There was a sense that he was putting something on the line personally with this: Not only was he the behind-the-scenes force on this, he was giving Zimmerman a spotlight with original characters in the Ultimate Universe, his brainchild.

And he provided a quality creative team, with art by veteran Duncan Fegredo – who, like Quesada, had worked off Kevin Smith’s dialogue-heavy scripts – and covers by the excellent artist Kaare Andrews.

In yet another press release, Quesada said, “My gut really tells me that, when all is said and done … I think Ultimate Adventures  #1 … it’s going to be one of those incredibly collectible issues. … When you take away all the cover gimmicks, I think Ultimate Adventures will be the ultimate winner, pardon the pun.”

It wasn’t.

The U-Decide competition was designed to run six months.  The six issues of Ultimate Adventures came out from November 2002 to September 2003.  During that nearly-two-year period, the covers were reduced from firm cardstock to a flimsy, slightly-higher-than-regular paper, while the cover price rose from $2.25 to $2.99.

The entirety of the Rawhide Kid miniseries came out during this time, the “U-Decide” contest was won by Captain Marvel, and Marville proved to be a lead-in to a relaunch of Marvel’s Epic line, which had also mostly vanished by the time Ultimate Adventures concluded.

And afterward, Ron Zimmerman was gone.

I can’t find any record as to whether anyone in the competition wound up being dunk-tanked or hit with a pie.

Unusued Woody Design.

Unusued Woody Design.

It’s funny how things turned out with Ultimate Adventures.  As successful as the Ultimate line had been at creating updated, accessible versions of existing superheroes, this was the one time it took that extra step of launching a book with entirely new characters and stepping away from that safety net of pre-branded Marvel Comics characters and the built-in audience they provided.

Unfortunately, the resulting book was an ill fit in the current marketplace on several levels.  It was part of a publicity stunt, a showcase for a writer whose work had left a bad taste in most readers’ mouths, and was quite obviously a satire on the Batman and Robin legend.  Enthusiasm for it was not high, and the delayed schedule only helped seal its fate.

But was it really one of the worst comics of the past decade?

A reread of Ultimate Adventures’ six issues reveals that, well, it wasn’t.  There were many books that were far worse, among them the aforementioned Marville.  It’s not to say that it’s some sort of buried masterpiece, though.

The first issue introduces us to Hank Kipple, a smart-mouthed orphan in a run-down Chicago orphanage who’s smart enough to rig a clapper-type dorm lighting system, athletic enough to climb to the top of a nearby church and back, and resourceful enough to stop an attempted robbery at the orphanage, but he is too much of a back-talker to avoid getting in trouble with the nuns.

Hank is the sort of character who could work if he was being portrayed as a life-action actor capable of bringing some nuance to the role of an abandoned kid who’s developed a tough exterior to cope with the idea that he’ll never have a family.

Protagonist Hank KIpple.

Protagonist Hank KIpple.

However, even Fegredo’s fine facial expressions have difficulty making him seem like anything other than a smart-ass.  In the first three pages alone, he lets off something like 15 insults, none of which arise above the creativity of “Sister Mary Stick-Up-Her-Butt.”

Actually, Hank pretty much insults everyone; from the priest trying to help him to the fellow orphans he’s trying to help.  It’s one thing to make a character seem tough and self-sufficient, but when he’s still spewing insults at a robber holding a gun to his head, the reader isleft wishing the robber would just pull the trigger.

After helping Hawk-Owl thwart the robbery and subsequently back-talking to Jack Danner when he comes to look into adopting a son, Hank finds himself unwillingly adopted into Danner’s world and shuttled out of the orphanage that very night.

With Hank, Danner and most of the supporting characters presented as typical comic stereotypes (strict nuns, kindly Irish priest, etc.), the biggest problems apparent in the first issue is that it seems designed to play out in live-action.   Again, real-life actors could perhaps bring some nuance to Hank and company, but on the page, their bland jokes play out in long, dialogue-filled word balloons on pages already crowded with tiny panels used to indicate reaction shots or quick camera cuts.  Most pages have eight or nine panels – which works when you have a carefully structured script like Watchmen, but not so much when you’re doing a fast-paced comedy story.

Still, there’s enough to the basic concept of the premise – super-competent orphan, super-hero wanting to pay it forward – that it’s easy to see why those involved with the book found it so compelling.   Duncan Fegredo, who recalled signing onto the book because of Zimmerman’s “engaging, lively and fun” synopsis of the story – turning down a series featuring DC’s Zatanna character written by acclaimed creator Paul Dini to do it – remembers getting the first script:

“On receiving the first script, Joe Quesada commented that it was a ‘little’ word heavy, made reference to us both having worked with Kevin Smith and what working with movie or TV writers was like. It was a good call, Zimmerman’s script suffered from the similar problems… overly dense, quick fire dialogue, cause and effect within the same panels. Page breaks could be problematic as well… It all read great and you could see things solved fine on film with sound but it’s another matter on a comics page…”

Indeed, the story reads fairly well when Fegredo’s art has some room to breathe.  The second issue, which sees Hank moving in with Danner and eventually discovering his secret headquarters, offers some strong moments of visual comedy, and ends with an excellent two-page spread of “The Nest”  (to its demerit, it also features such lame sequences as Hawk-Owl stopping a robber named “Zed,” designed to look like the character from Pulp Fiction, and is offered a CD with a thousand hours of AOL by the grateful clerk, one of many cheap shots the Quesada-Jemas era of Marvel took at DC’s parent company AOL Time Warner[3]).

Hank explores Hawk-Owl’s Lair in Ultimate Adventures #2, a lovely bit of Fegredo design work. Via http://www.comicsalliance.com’s “15 Worst Comics of the Decade” feature on Ultimate Adventures.

But Fegredo does some quality work even within the script’s limitations.  His Chicago is a cold, snowy place that feels like a realistic urban environment, and his skill with facial expressions nearly saves a scene where Hank is chewed out by Hawk-Owl’s right-hand-man Col. Toliver.   04

And Hawk-Owl’s costume, depicted as a slick Batman-type armor on the book’s covers, has a nicely bulky, eerie quality on the page, with its light-up lenses and shaggy feathered cloak.  It almost what a real super-suit built by a rich guy might look like.

Fegredo recalled the origins of Hawk-Owl and Woody’s designs, which were credited in the inside front covers to Ralph Cirella:

“There were some designs done before hand, on receiving them I was told by Joe (Quesada ) to ‘Do what you can with these… ‘ I did just that. There may have been odd elements that survived but I redesigned everything I could. To say I was pissed off that the guy had a credit up front in the book, every issue, is an understatement.”

By the third  issue, the book was already running late, coming out three months after issue #2.  Fegredo recalls:

“The book started late pretty much and on top of that I knew nothing about the dumb U-Decide contest. I should’ve known better… Ron’s scripts were not edited. Issues of overcrowding and fundamental problems like cause and effect within a panel should have been pointed out to him, edited in fact. It was all left to me. That’s fine but it adds time to the process. The first script wasn’t so bad but later scripts were more problematic when they came in pages over-written, too dense at 22 pages I was having to squeeze four more overly-dense pages amongst the rest.”

Midway through issue #3, Fegredo says, his mother passed away, further delaying the book.  Marvel’s solution, according to Fegredo, was to bring in Walden Wong to ink the pages for issue #4, something Fegredo usually did himself.  Though Wong’s a proven talented inker on many other books, the drop-off in quality was evident, and even Fegredo admits the results were “bland.”

It’s a shame, as the issue could have been a visual highlight with Hawk-Owl being forcibly recruited by the Ultimates,.  Instead, the flat look drags down an already-lame script that shows Hawk-Owl talking back to a fascistic Captain America, battling him to a standstill while the other Ultimates offer color-commentary.

It’s supposed to show that Hawk-Owl marches to his own drum and is competent on his own, but what mostly comes off is that Cap makes sense when he points out how stupid Hawk-Owl’s sidekick plan is.

The many faces of Hank Kipple.

The many faces of Hank Kipple.

The book’s main plot finally kicks in during the final two issues, as Hank’s school principal suffers a psychotic break after some personal setbacks and Hank accidentally punching him in the head (again, this kid is supposed to be our hero), leading to him becoming a bizarre Joker-like super-villain who wields a paddle as a weapon. It’s actually one of the more clever bits of the series, though the principal still comes off a bit more sympathetic than Hank, even when he’s torturing people.

By the end, evil is defeated, Hank has learned a few life lessons, and he and Jack swear they’re never going to put on the costumes again, only to stop a mugging in front of a screening of The Mask of Zorro.  The parody of Batman’s origin is, like many of the other parodies in the book, ham-fisted, though it does end in a nice double-page spread by Fegredo of the characters swooping to the rescue.

At some point during all this is Hawk-Owl’s origin as told by his stereotypical martial-arts-proficient Asian chauffer, which somehow involves a martial arts mentor literally drawn in the image of Pat Morita in The Karate Kid (Fegredo can’t remember whether this was deliberate), and some bit about how Danner “is the hawk and the owl now.”[4]  The explanation doesn’t make much sense, nor does it add anything to Danner’s character.

Ultimate Adventures was eventually collected in a trade paperback entitled “One Tin Soldier,” though the classic anti-war folk song/Billy Jack theme doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do with Hank Kipple’s tale.  As for the erstwhile sidekick and his mentor, they vanished into the ether, save for a throwaway reference in The Ultimates’ second storyline where Hawk-Owl was discussed as a possible recruit.

It was, in retrospect, a failed experiment more than anything else.  It tried to create original characters for the Ultimate Universe, do a comedic super-hero comic, and signal Ron Zimmerman’s transition into the realm of fan-favorite writers who are only slightly pilloried on the Internet.  Even Duncan Fegredo himself has few fond memories of it.

And yet, I can’t condemn it as one of the worst Marvel comics ever.  There are spectacular failures, and there are mediocrities, and then there are the failed experiments.  The reason I elevate the failed experiments above their ilk is that, in their undertaking, they attempt to do something different, to create something new.
10Granted, the “something new” in this case was a Batman-based family comedy.  But it’s the one book in more than a decade of the Ultimate universe that wasn’t some slightly-rejiggered version of a pre-branded name.  Okay, it was with a character most audiences would immediately identify as a Batman type, but it was still a character that had never existed in Marvel Comics before.

The great strength of the Ultimate Universe has long been its ability to modernize, simplify and subvert the histories of existing Marvel characters.  Its weakest points have been when, like the “regular” Marvel comics, it’s been put into a position where it’s forced to spin the wheels on the characters’ stories, impeding any sense of growth and change.

Ultimate Adventures, for better or for worse, represents a different, potentially fascinating direction that the Ultimate Universe could have gone.  It could have been a world that had numerous books with different tones and styles that represented comedy, horror and other story-telling possibilities.  Much like Brian Michael Bendis’ collaborations with multiple artists with multiple styles on the sadly short-lived Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, it could have declared a new Ground Zero for titles that were, if not groundbreaking, at least a little more offbeat.

It’s that sense of experimentation that brought creators like Bendis or Matt Fraction or Ed Brubaker to Marvel Comics – strong, unique voices whose backgrounds were far from the typical cape-and-spandex tales.  Hell, it’s what resulted in Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and their kin creating the Marvel Universe in the 1960s, revitalizing and redefining the concept of the superhero comic while fusing it with the storytelling techniques they’d honed in a decade-plus of romance and monster books.

Joe Quesada’s belief in Ron Zimmerman might seem ill-founded, and his strengths as a comedy writer might have translated poorly to the paneled page nut I’ve no doubt the thinking behind his hiring was solid, as was the belief in his potential. And as I look at Fegredo’s double-page spread that ends Ultimate Adventures, a gorgeous shot of Hawk-Owl and Woody joyfully leaping into battle, I can’t help but feel that there was a great comic in here, just one that wasn’t fully realized.

As for Ron Zimmerman, he went back to writing for other media.  His most recent credits include a consulting producer position on the Disney Channel series Shake It Up! and writing/guest-starring in an episode of the brazen Fox sitcom ‘Til Death where he got into a gunfight with a little person.  In 2010, Marvel published his sequel to his Rawhide Kid miniseries, illustrated by the great Howard Chaykin.  No one complained much, or said much about it at all.

For Zimmerman, it might have come as a relief.

The last pages of Ultimate Adventures #6, via http://www.comicvine.com.


[1] The name came from a woodpecker-based costume, though it was originally announced as “Zippy.”  I don’t get it either.

[2] Helpfully archived in the August 5 edition of Rich Johnston’s “Lying in the Gutters” rumor column, http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=14176

[3] These increasingly public attacks annoyed DC to the extent that they refused to do any more crossovers between their characters’ and Marvel’s while Quesada and Jemas were working at the company.  Quesada’s biggest swipe, that DC was failing to follow Marvel’s lead in licensing their lesser-known characters for major film and television projects, actually turned out to be a piece of advice the company followed.

[4] There actually is a bird called a hawk-owl, but the origin involves young Danner fighting a hawk that’s attacking an owl.  Why he named himself after both isn’t exactly clarified in the script, though there were at least three preexisting comic characters called “The Owl” anyway.

UPDATED: This is going to be a repository for links to my published stuff for a bit.

I haven’t been posting about toys because I got a paying gig blogging about them for MTV Geek!  Here’s my first few posts:

Power Lords Return

Django Unchained Toys Pulled from Shelves

Django Unchained Toys Now Banned on eBay

Sideshow Toys Unveils Sixth Scale Joker Figure

ADVENTURE TIME Marshall Lee Plush Now in Stores

Thunderbirds are Go(ne): A Tribute to Gerry Anderson

Marvel Select Toys Rhino Figure in Stores

Hasbro’s new STAR WARS BLACK 6-Inch Figure Line

Toys based on 1966 Batman TV Show Coming Soon

New Superman MAN OF STEEL Toys

He-Man Plush Toys

Interview with THE WALKING DEAD creator Robert Kirkman on New Michonne Statue

Exclusive look at DC/Domo Funko Figures

New Star Wars Jango Fett Statue

Sideshow Toys Black Widow Sixth Scale Figure

Game of Thrones toys coming with PLUSH DIREWOLVES!

Four Horsemen’s New York Toy Fair Party!

SUPER-EXCLUSIVE: Todd McFarlane Reveals THE WALKING DEAD Season 3 Blu-Ray Case, Recreating The Governor’s Fish Tank!

Did a piece recapping one of my favorite 1990s comics, QUANTUM AND WOODY.

I also did a two-part talk with James Kochalka on the end of his web journal AMERICAN ELF and on his web cartoon SUPERF*CKERS.

PART ONE

PART TWO

For ADVENTURE TIME fans – here’s Danielle Corsetto talking the new GN focusing on Flame Princess!

Dreama Walker in Compliance

Did an interview with Craig Zobel, director of the ultra-creepy indy film COMPLIANCE!

I also did some reviews of the short films nominated for Oscars, including Disney’s PAPERMAN.

Ever After Hardcover Cover

Here’s a new interview I did with Kim Harrison on her novel series THE HOLLOWS!

New theater review: BUS STOP at Raleigh Little Theatre!

New theater review: Joe Brack’s one-man show MY PRINCESS BRIDE!

Golden Age Bakery's Fletcher Hanks cookies

And I’ve gotten a lot of response for this interview with the creator of Golden Age Bakery, which puts edible comic book panels on cookies!

I have a few more pieces should hopefully come out by the end of the month, and I’ve been working on some odd projects — including a couple of new comic book one-shots that should come out from MonkeyBrain by year’s end.  My artists are working on spec, so good stuff takes time!

Might try to get some more original posts done in the future.  I’ve had some good feedback on the children’s book pieces and want to do some more.

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