Sunday, October 25, 2009

Original Art

I don't have much original comic art.  I do have a few cherished pieces, however, that are rather unique.  After writing about my Art Spiegelman sketch, I decided to open my own online gallery at the website, Comic Art Fans (  I posted a few pieces from my collection and one in particular got a lot of attention.  It was my X-Men page by John Byrne.  Here it is:

This piece was done for promotional purposes by Marvel Comics back in 1977.  It saw publication in at least one comic:  Avengers 165 (Nov, 1977).  John Byrne started as artist on X-Men 108 in December, 1977, one month after the Avengers title went on sale.  This makes my drawing one of Byrne's earliest official X-Men pieces.  It also makes it valuable.  I've already had a few people inquire about buying the drawing (and they made some very nice offers).  Apparently, an original piece like this is highly sought after.

Byrne's drawing is bold and dynamic and it's a great portrait of the entire team. The X-Men are in action and ready for battle!  Cyclops, a strong central figure, leads the charge.  Three X-Men flank him on each side.  The piece features Banshee (upper left) who left the team shortly after Byrne joined the title.  It also prominently features Phoenix (bottom right) and Wolverine in his original costume.  The composition is notable:  Phoenix and Banshee balance the two corners, while Storm's black cape balances Nightcrawler's dark costume.  Her cape also isolates and highlights the commanding presence of Cyclops.

This is a finished piece of art but it contains some obvious blemishes: There is a splotch of white-out on Nightcrawler's thumb, a place where Byrne obviously made a fix to the figure.  There is also a smudge of ink just below Nightcrawler's hand.  Finally, there is a cryptic note on the bottom right, written in blue pencil: "Pos 50%" along with a scribble that may be someone's initials or sign-off.  (This is probably a note to the colorist or someone else involved with the printing of the piece.)

I bought the drawing from John Byrne in New York City at a comic convention in November, 1981.  He had recently left X-Men to start work on The Fantastic Four.  Byrne was doing sketches.  He was charging $20 per figure and he had a bold, hand-written sign in front of him that read: "No X-Men."  I really wanted a sketch but none of the Fantastic Four (by themselves) seemed that interesting.  When I got my chance I requested a Dr. Doom sketch, which Byrne happily produced.  As he was packing up to leave he pulled out a few pieces from his portfolio and asked for offers.  One was a nice inked drawing of Kitty Pryde.  He held it up but nobody in the packed crowd said anything.  He put the drawing away and pulled out the X-Men drawing.  Again, nobody offered any money.  Everybody seemed afraid.  Who could guess what he would want for such a piece?  Byrne looked around and shrugged.  He seemed kind of frustrated.  Just as he was slipping it back in his bag, I yelled out, "Forty dollars!"  He pulled it right back out and said, "Forty dollars. That sounds good."  I handed him the money and he handed me the art.  I figured I got a great deal -- seven characters, and all of them X-Men!  Had he been doing X-Men sketches (and he emphatically wasn't) it would have cost me $140 to get an equivalent drawing.

I brought the art home and had it framed.  It has hung on various walls in various homes for the past 28 years.  Even though I lost my interest in the X-Men comic long ago, I still have a strong attachment to my original John Byrne X-Men drawing.  And I'll tell you, it was the best investment of forty dollars I've ever made.

Monday, October 19, 2009

At Half-Price Books . . .

So I'm looking through the graphic novels and comics at Half-Price Books. Lots of stuff I don't want or don't like. Plenty of Marvel and DC compilations, most from the last few years or so.

I see a copy of Swamp Thing volume 1. I have that already. Hmm, volume three of Y The Last Man. Have that, too. There's a copy of Fun Home. Got that last week. Oh, is that a copy of Maus? It looks different from my copy at home. Maybe it's a first edition . . . . Why, it sure is. Hey, it's signed! ("For Brett" but oh well.) And there's a sketch by Art Spiegelman!!

It's mine! (And for only eight bucks!)

I love Half-Price Books.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

BFI's New Star Wars Book

BFI (British Film Institute) has released Star Wars, the latest volume in its "Film Classics" series. Star Wars was announced years ago (2002 to be exact) and when it failed to appear I assumed the title had been canceled. Happily, the book (by Will Brooker) is finally available.

In case you don't know, the BFI books are compact, focused studies (usually around 100 pages) written by film scholars and accomplished critics. These reliable authorities deliver fresh insights into the thematic and aesthetic qualities of particular films and always provide convincing arguments for a film's "classic" status. For cinephiles, a BFI book is the place to go for quick (but substantive) analysis.

I haven't read Star Wars yet, but after a quick perusal it looks good. Here's a sample of what Brooker has to offer: "Star Wars reveals the clash between [George] Lucas's pleasure in the exterior, reflective surfaces of objects, and his enjoyment in taking them apart and customising them; his admiration for raw documentary and his obsession with polished high production values; his nostalgia for classical Hollywood adventure and his interest in abstract formalism." (p. 10)." If you like this kind of film analysis then this is the book for you!

There are a number of great books in the BFI library--studies on Blue Velvet, Blade Runner, Eyes Wide Shut, The Right Stuff (and my favorite, Groundhog Day). I recommend all of them. But there are still many great films that need the BFI treatment: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Magnolia, Apocalypse Now, The Natural and Adaptation (to name but a few). We may never see them but we can hope!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Extemporaneous Comments on the new TV Season

I've been watching TV.

New Shows:

Flashforward (ABC) - Two episodes in and I am intrigued but not enthused. The "flashforward" is a cool concept and there are many story ideas to mine from it. But the show is rather flat and I wonder if it can sustain its premise for very long. We all know there will be another flashforward at some point (season finale?), but, if so, it has to be something different from the last one. How will this show evolve? I can see it becoming stagnant real fast if it isn't willing to take some risks. The producers are clearly influenced by LOST and I hope they look to that show as an example of how to expand a story and keep their concept fresh. I'm staying tuned for now.

Community (NBC) - I heard good reviews and liked the first episode. But the show is trying too hard to be funny and not hard enough to be inviting. Chevy Chase is good and so is lead actor, Joel McHale, but the rest of the supporting cast looks like it could come from any sitcom from the past 30 years. And the storylines seem recycled, too. I'm on the cusp of tuning out.

Modern Family (ABC) - I watched the first episode and laughed a few times but this was another one of those shows that didn't click for me. I guess I'm growing tired of the documentary style sitcom even though I like Parks and Recreation and The Office (see my comments below). This show might be very good over the long haul but I don't have the time to commit right now. Already tuned out.

Bored to Death (HBO) OK, here's a show I like. Bored to Death is about characters. The show takes time to let its characters think and interact. In other words, it's slow. But that's why I like it. Unlike network programs that urgently rush huge casts of characters on- and off-stage in hopes that audiences will see something they like, HBO lets shows like Bored to Death find their own rhythm. Bored to Death features a dopey, likeable Jason Schwartzman whose character is at an age where he is struggling against the responsibilities of adulthood. The grown-up world isn't the one from movies and books. Schwartzman is naive and sweet and he's fun to watch as he tries to maintain these qualities while also being a hard-boiled "private eye." I don't know if Bored to Death will last more than one season, but I'll take what I can get. (In other words, I'm tuned-in for the duration.)

Glee (FOX) - I really shouldn't like Glee. It's contrived and predictable. It features some of the most tired sitcom plotting you're likely to see. (A faked pregnancy? Really?) But I find myself laughing at Jane Lynch who totally nails her competitive, tough-coach persona. And I guess I'm a sucker for musical numbers which can, when done right, add a magical quality to the otherwise mundane. Glee has enough magic to make me overlook its flaws. (For now.) I'm tuned in until I wake up and think straight.

Returning Shows:

The Simpsons (FOX) Still great. And after twenty years! The Simpsons may have lost some of the cleverness and brio of its heyday, but there's still inspired humor on the show. The opening episode featuring "Everyman" was a wonderful example.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) There's lots of hype about the Seinfeld reunion this season, but even before this plot kicked into gear (in the third episode) the show remained unconventional and unpredictable. In short: brilliant.

Parks and Recreation (NBC) Here's a show that's improving with time. The first season (of only six episodes) had some nice moments but seemed scattered. The new season is letting the characters become more grounded. I like the budding romance between Leslie (Amy Poehler) and police officer Dave (Louis C. K.). It shows how the characters on Parks and Recreation (like those on like The Office) are people and not just caricatures. That's what makes it work for me.

The Office (NBC) This is still a wonderful show. Steve Carell deserves recognition for his portrayal of office boss, Michael Scott. Maybe someday he'll get that Emmy. The show is working like a well-oiled machine but I think it's starting to show its age. The Pam/Jim storyline lost its edge a long time ago. Their hindered romance was once the driving force of the show. Without it, there's a narrative vacuum. I keep expecting some new drama to enter the lives of Pam and Jim but they keep moving happily along. (They've both been promoted, they're getting married, they're having a baby. Great! But where's the drama?) And one other thing: It is getting hard to believe that a "documentary" is still being "filmed" at Dunder Mifflin. Will this documentary ever be shown? Or do the producers hope we, the audience, have forgotten the premise of the show? (In the fictional world of the British version of The Office, the documentary we "saw" being shot on the first 12 episodes was supposedly shown. Could this ever happen on the US version?)

Dollhouse (FOX) I always thought this show had much to offer and the second season is living up to the promise of the first. There are many wonderful concepts at play in Dollhouse, among them the ideas of portable and manufactured identities and the importance of memory as a defining aspect of personality. Despite its formulaic plot structure (Mission!/Danger!/Fight!), there is a sophisticated level of storytelling going on here that makes Dollhouse one of the most rewarding science fiction shows in some time. (Though there is one flaw in the Dollhouse scenario that has become almost laughable--the constant failure of the "imprinting technology" which is used to program "actives" for their missions. Said tech fails almost as often as the Enterprise transporters on Star Trek. And just like those glitchy transporters, the buggy tech in Dollhouse is usually the root-cause for drama from episode-to-episode. It is starting to strain credibility that the Dollhouse managers aren't running a full diagnostic review of their unreliable and highly dangerous technology.) Sadly, the ratings for Dollhouse are abysmal. I hope we see the full run of 13 episodes ordered by FOX and that Dollhouse creator, Joss Whedon, plotted this arc with some resolution. I doubt Dollhouse will be on in 2010 and so, for now, I'm watching it like I would a mini-series: I know I have so many episodes and then it's over. I better enjoy it while it lasts.