A “Genuine Legend” in Play it Again Sam: the Sam Schoenfeld Story

 

Play it Again Sam: the Sam Schoenfeld Story (Directed Matthew Berkowitz, produced by Rough Hewn Entertainment, 2011).

 

Matthew Berkowitz and Rough Hewn Entertainment bring a moving archive to fans and historians of the game in their film documentary Play it Again Sam: the Sam Schoenfeld Story (2011). Constructed from a wealth of newspaper coverage, family home movies, photos, and interviews with people who interacted with Sam on a variety of levels, Play it Again Sam is a striking example of how intensive research can be brought together in the celebration of a hero. One of the greatest difficulties of making a documentary like this, particularly when dealing with sports figures, must be choosing what surviving media material to emphasize and how best to arrange the information in a narrative that viewers can easily follow. That has to be balanced against the need to present a full picture of the phases in a career sportsperson’s life as well as the many spheres in which they have influenced others.

In Play it again Sam, we are first introduced to the many voices and impressions of Sam still passed on by surviving friends, relatives, and other professionals. This creates a kind of cascade of information in which little shards of Sam’s personality and life work come to light. The strongest impression that draws the “cascade” of personal interview clips to a close is that Sam is a “genuine legend”. This raises a question for the rest of the documentary to answer. In what ways was Sam so particularly “authentic”? How was he the “real thing” to the extent that over 50 years after his death, people still speak about him with devotion and awe?

To answer that, Berkowitz takes us back to the very beginning, to Sam’s childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as the son of a butcher who had a natural attraction to informal sports but impressed teachers immediately at the high school level. What’s unusual in this story is not just Sam’s skill at a very new sport, but his drive to go to college and become a physical education teacher in the early 1920’s, certainly not a typical goal. Newspaper clippings and photographs contrast Sam’s remarkable records of success at his first college with the impact of the depression and the substrata of “Jewish kids” winning scholarships and making a name for themselves in this “urban sport”. Historians and academics fill in the social details for us, linking basketball to the “immigrant experience”, a reinforcement of the team-sport ethos whereby a community ascends together toward their goals.

Sam’s influence on basketball gradually emerges in a steady trajectory after gaining the limelight as a star player at Columbia University, reminding us strongly that this is a New York story and that, in this early period, basketball was still really a New York game.  In a career-defining moment, the first national radio broadcast of a basketball game in the USA actually featured Columbia, and Schoenfeld, in a successful championship match. Sam’s life during this period was not all about the game, however, but also about supporting his growing family. In the coming years, he would take on a number of “enterprises”, many of which left a lasting mark on the game, and on the lives of young people. From coaching to investing in restaurants and “officiating” at games, Sam worked tirelessly to foster success and used his “genuine” nature to make life-long friends.

Despite Sam’s stellar performances on the court, he refused employment as a professional player in order to remain closer to his family, and it is perhaps as a coach, official, and father that he shone the most. Berkowitz and Rough Hewn present a particularly strong record of this period in Sam’s life, including much of his unofficial life through family home movies and interviews. His “diversified career” included the successful founding of health and fitness based camps for young people and a very active role as an official referee during an era when refereeing was a fairly new discipline. In fact, Sam helped to found the first officially recognized and organized body of referees and guided them through rough patches in interacting with media and fans. Sam’s impressive “voice” for the honesty and integrity of the sport, including direct responses to a denigration of referees gained him even greater respect in a role where he was already often greeted like a star.

Berkowitz makes it clear that in many ways, Sam’s career parallels the rise of basketball from a back-alley diversion to a respected and recognized national sport, and that Sam Schoenfeld’s own seriousness, and his respect for the game, provided the passion, goals, and guidelines that basketball needed to progress. As a teacher, Sam instilled these values in many major players, and particularly raised the prestige of referee work, inspiring several of his students to “officiate” for the NBA.

The consistent message of so many contributing “voices” in the documentary that are skillfully woven together in this account, is that Sam was indeed an authentic legend: someone who lived by example and held himself to the standards that he expected to see in others.

The evidence for this was most clearly seen in Sam’s remarkably crowded funeral after he died from rapidly progressing cancer at the young age of 49. Berkowitz again brings in many accounts of the funeral to present a kind of collage of the unique experience. The procession was “tremendous”, and police barricades were needed, as players, colleagues, and friends insisted on showing their affection and respect en masse for one of the biggest influences on basketball’s development in New York.

In-depth interviews with Schoenfeld’s sons bring the story out of the public sphere, where it has plenty to inform it, and into the personal sphere. Viewers get a unique perspective, laced with touching honesty, about how Sam’s tireless schedule impacted family life, and the ways in which losing him so suddenly cast them all adrift. While he encouraged one son in artistic endeavor, and another to pursue medicine, a third who followed in his father’s footsteps felt that Sam was almost entirely “absent” from games and practices due to his demanding career. After losing Sam, his wife and children faced “turbulent times” and struggled with finding their roles in life. Family videos touchingly convey a feeling of Sam’s inner life, and happier times, reminding viewers of the motivation behind much of his work: to be an example to the younger generation.

Sam’s story would not be complete without a look at his ongoing impact, from the awards established in his name to his 2009 induction into the New York Basketball Hall of Fame. Berkowitz includes a scrolling list of the winners of these awards, emphasizing the continuity of Sam’s life with the current sport he shaped so deeply. Throughout the documentary, the use of period music, excellent editing, and an appealing overlay of still shots create a fluid learning experience. Even for those who think they know the Sam Schoenfeld story, there are bound to be several moments of remarkable insight into both the man and his game due to Berkowitz’s wide-spread interviewing and careful documentation. The viewer comes to hear Sam’s voice more clearly through the voices of the many, many people who were inspired by his example, and that may be the most “genuine” portrait of a legend that filmmakers can construct.

Play it Again Sam uses a light touch on the archival material it presents, but a careful and exacting approach to organizing its story-telling in a meaningful way. It’s a beautiful tribute to the early days of a beloved sport and it sensitively explores a major hero’s life and career while acknowledging the justifiably legendary aspects of his legacy.

–by Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on Facebook and Twitter

 

Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con “Chronicle” at Trip City

When I went to Philly Comic Con, I had been warned it was a little scary and low-brow. It was. But it had some other qualities worth looking into and some potential for future coolness. Check out my chronicle here: http://welcometotripcity.com/2012/06/wizard-world-philadelphia-comic-con/

Meet the Magus Part 3: The Jack of the Green and the Deep Green in the Swamp Thing

My third installment studying the role of magic in Alan Moore's works continues over at Sequart. This one is the first part of a Swamp Thing discussion that will conclude in #4.

http://www.sequart.org/magazine/12273/meet-the-magus-part-3-the-deep-green-jack-of-the-green-and-the-swamp-thing/

What’s in an Indie Web Comic? Looking at “Dino Fight UK” on TripCity.net.

I am by no means a connoisseur of indie comix, much less web comix. In fact, I’m just starting out on that road of self-education in the famously off-beat or obscurely personal world that contains much more variety than non comix readers would ever know. I mean, it’s like saying that everyone from a given planet looks and acts the same to say “indie comix” and mean a certain combination of traits. And yet, it’s not entirely inept to say that there’s such a thing as earthlings and there are underlying principles that link us together. Then add to that the web element and the experimentation and choices necessary to create in that medium.

My only real previous experience of web comix is Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s Freakangels (from Avatar Press), which I became obsessed with right away for its chilly pastel hues and manga lite dystopia look, not to mention the creepy family dynamics of this group of alien-magic young people who have the power to create and destroy worlds. I read it in large rectangular frames that filled the screen and ended up tilting my laptop this way and that. My final adaptation was to lie down and hold the computer over me at what felt like the right distance. It was absurd, but I didn’t even notice, I was so engrossed.

 

There are scholars out there, and avid fans who have already critiqued the formal qualities of indie comix, and of web comics. There are debates among professionals about how to use the digital format, ongoing and essential. But there is a decisive need, equally essential, to JUST DO IT.

Do we need to know how to do it, to do it? Somewhat, but not really. You learn by doing. That’s always been true of the arts. It’s true of writing. It’s true of painting. It’s true of many of the crafts that have now become sophisticated enough to have textbooks and college degrees on offer. Let’s assume we are not going to wait around until there are degrees in indie web comix to make them (and would they even classify as “indie” at that point?)

There are what feel like a billion examples I could talk about to illustrate this point, but I’ll use the one that gave me the idea to talk about this for a moment, one that was staring me in the face when I woke up this morning. It was entitled “Dino Fight UK”. I had never encountered something that might or might not be a genre called “Dino Fight” but the UK appendage told me that this was probably produced by the band and comix combination Americans UK fronted by Jeffrey Burandt, aka Jeff UK. I had read a couple of his comix before, but to be honest, his writing is so versatile (a defining feature) when it comes to comix and his collaborators are pretty varied so I couldn’t be completely sure what this comic would be like. The accompanying essay discussion along with the short comic helped fill in the blanks for me, that this was an “untold tale” that harmonized with the wider story arcs of the series produced by Americans UK wherein band members journey through time to try to save some other, murdered band members. In this installment, they find themselves in the prehistoric era.

So I had author information, the position of this particular comic in its own comic universe, and some of the goals and past work of both the writer Jeff UK and the artist ZeeS. My first impression was that it was not that common to be given so much supporting information along with an indie comic. A friend had recently sent me an issue of Art Babe by Jessica Abel and an issue of Fight Girl Comics by Trina Robbins. I had heard of both comics and even heard people discuss them, but hadn’t read either yet. Looking inside the cover of Art Babe, I saw that Jessica did include a rather substantial essay about her work and life along with photos of herself with friends. Looking at Fight Girl, I didn’t see the same kind of information, but the comic closes with a semi-autobio piece about Trina’s life “speaking” to the reader. This is enough to suggest to me that there is a trait in indie comix to provide some explanatory commentary with comics. The unique thing about web comix is that the format allows for additional commentary to remain present on a hosting page while readers scroll or click through panels. To me, this allows the reader to glance back at information rather than flip pages, and might even create new visual dialogues. When I was reading “Dino Fight UK”, I did glance back at the essay twice, not because I really needed to, but because it occurred to me to do so. The parts I looked at were the author’s description of the plot and appearance of characters.

 

There were also visual aspects to the art work on “Dino Fight UK” that I would have associated with indie comix, even if I had seen it in print. You’ll notice the intentional use of uneven lines, reminiscent of flowing calligraphic brush-work that creates panel borders. The lines are rich and high-quality, but have that nod to the hand-produced, maybe even photocopied tendencies of indie comix in the 80’s and 90’s. In the same opening panel, the font reminds you of a 12-bit video game, another low-tech feature intentionally placed and designed to give the impression of the home-grown, not the super-graphic design of major comics companies. I’ll go further to suggest that the style of the comic art in “Dino Fight UK” is both remarkably controlled and remarkably energetic. The tension between the two features gives me an indie comix feel while reminding me that the artist is, in fact, highly skilled in the comics medium, unlike some of the artists who start off producing indie comix.

 Of course, some indie comix artists are virtuosos of their own particular style (and variety of styles is a selling point) but many also foster a naïve style and encourage a “messy” look. Zees’ work is not truly messy, but it’s warm and inviting because it has those little accents of low-tech, and particularly hand-drawn art. It’s use of thick dark lines, as if drawn by a seeping felt-tip, and blocks of color remind you of holding thick markers as a kid drawing, and shading in, as neatly as possible, coloring book characters.

The first action panel is perhaps my favorite in the short work. It’s a wide range of lavender tones interrupted by the lush lines of our characters in flight. Black spatters of ink seem to radiate outward while the sound effect “VOIP!” is nearer to the reader than the panel itself seems, and also strange enough to remind you that this is a highly idiosyncratic work. ZeeS uses position in relationship to the reader to good effect, following into the second panel where one character is posed nearer, then a second, then, behind them, a watching attacker. The reader is drawn into the panel in a visual zig-zag. The choices of color palette for each panel is gutsy, definitely conveying mood. The attack of the said “Dino” leaps out in yellow, bold greens, pinks, and sharply edges outlines. The two panels reflecting the violent attack and response are both “close-up” bringing the action to the reader with almost an “over the shoulder” vantage like a video game. The fight immediately subsides into a more mellow composition where the reader “views” from the vantage of the characters their acquaintance Time Bum. The final panel uses depth “layering” again with some clever jokes. Near the reader’s level, a character scrawls “ApeMan” on a rock (and I think this is a reference to an Americans UK single release) and a dinosaur foot indicates a drumstick for feasting while beyond, the other characters chow down. It’s maybe the opposite, in terms of action intensity, of the introducing action panel. It’s a story resolved, a short, complete episode.

The restrictions on writing faced on a comic like this include keeping the plot to a single unit understandable for those who might not have read more Americans UK (and I haven’t yet read that much), and also making the story active and entertaining on two levels: as part of the Americans UK canon, and as part of a comix “unit of entertainment”. Simplicity accomplishes both. The story of the comic could be told in a couple of sentences, but that wouldn’t be a comic, much less an indie web comic. In this medium and situation, the creators can take full advantage of the single frame presentation at Trip City.net. This literally forces at least an extra half-second before the reader can “click” to the next panel. Like an independently framed painting, it better be good or the faults will become obvious. But these panels are not only good, they are rich enough and satisfying enough to make you pause. You will not be clicking quickly through this comic. To make these panels fly, though, the text use must be simple and the panel’s story must “tell itself” to the reader easily. Overcrowded panels would be difficult to pull off in this format. While ZeeS could have chosen to fill each “page” with more than one panel, a viable option, he instead presents these resonant large panels and take the risks with the graces offered.

If we use “Dino Fight UK” as an example of an indie web comic being produced privately by an artist and a writer with their own particular vision to present, we might deduce that an indie web comic needs 1) an unconventional style that may carry traces of the low-tech or hand-created, 2) a strategy for dealing with the emphasis and time-flow inherent in digital viewing, 3) a strong sense of the interaction between text and image that forms almost a visual dialogue between the two parts of production, maybe due to “true” collaboration (or in some cases, a single author-artist’s creation). An indie comic “feels” different from a mainstream comic. We know that. Does an indie web comic “feel” different than an indie print comic? Yes, it does. It operates in a different kingdom with different rules, but it’s a welcoming country with a great deal to offer. It will be exciting to see how indie web comix like “Dino Fight UK” develop and expand to maximize their potential over time. Right now experimentation, as we see here, is the key. With faith in experiment, creators can JUST DO IT without worrying about proscriptive, tried and true methods. There’s something very exciting about that.

“Dino Fight UK”, the accompanying essay, and links to author and artist info can be found here:http://welcometotripcity.com/2012/06/dino-fight-uk/

–I am Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on Facebook and Twitter

Exploring Rook Chant: Collected Writings on Witchcraft and Paganism, by K. A. Laity

 


It must have been a particularly mystical experience to open the large tome of a medieval miscellany for scribes in the middle ages. If they had never opened it yet, they might have little idea of exactly what they would find inside, but they would almost certainly be hoping for the fantastic as well as the uniquely instructive. Medieval miscellanies were collections of writing varying from poetry to prose, from genre to subject matter, hand-picked for their unusual flavor in combination. To some extent, we’ve lost that tradition in the modern age, though anthologies mirror our desire to compare and contrast works, using context as a new lens through which to view them. Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days, for instance, with its Dali-esque cover by Dave McKean, contains “curiosities, oddments, and other stories” and yet Gaiman feels they have a common denominator worth considering: that they were written “after midnight”.

K.A. Laity, a medievalist, scholar, professor, and prolific genre fiction writer, has produced a remarkable miscellany in her non-fiction collection Rook Chant, available from Amazon as a Kindle book. Like Gaiman, she wrote these pieces over the course of several years for various purposes and they found homes in widely ranging periodicals. Something, however, continued to bind them together and suggest their interrelationship, whether a text translating a largely unknown Anglo-Saxon charm poem, or a review of the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore. These works may well have been written “after midnight”, but they were also written with a common double-purpose, that of bringing attention to worthy subject matter while rendering those materials available to new readership.  

In this collection, Laity often presents the original medieval material from a poem, charm, or saga, and then offers a modern translation as well as discussion of its significance; this format appeals to a wide range of readerships and specifically denies exclusivity.  Readers are encouraged to ponder the texts themselves, find their own meaning and significance, and consider Laity’s argument for their value.

The general structure of Rook Chant is very helpful. Not only is the Kindle format carefully tagged with a title-based table of contents, but the large collection is divided into essays dealing with specific medieval texts, those dealing with myth and folklore, and those which originated as reviews of specific topics or cultural artifacts. The wide-ranging oddities of the “medieval” section are enough to make any medieval scholar or enthusiast flip through the pages as eagerly as a scribe with a miscellany in hand. Many of these texts are not commonly featured in the medieval literature anthologies one can pick up in a chain bookstore, and plenty of them would not be accessible outside of a university library, much less in a welcoming translation. A common theme brings these medieval texts together: the subculture of magic, often well under-represented in medieval scholarship. From largely unknown witchcraft trials to the boundaries between St. Brigid and Brigid as a mother-goddess, Rook Chant opens many windows onto the less often illuminated aspects of medieval beliefs.

The “myth and folklore” section may, in turn, engage a slightly different group of scholars and general interest readers, as Laity traces the impact of folk beliefs into the modern age. Again, many of these topics are intriguingly off the beaten path of cultural discussion, from the ancient mythology of Finland, to personal essays on teaching mythological concepts in the college environment. In this section, Laity branches out more fully into first-person narrative, using her own life as an example of a reader’s experience of myth and a writer’s experience of exploring a subject. Laity perhaps most strongly conveys her perspective on modern paganism and magical pursuits and the intersections they form with her scholarly life. This serves two purposes: firstly, it explains her viewpoint to readers who might have little knowledge of modern pagan, wiccan, or magical practice, and it also builds up a conversation within the communities seeking more cultural representation. Indeed, many of these essays originally appeared in journals directed toward magical practitioners, and so bringing these essays together not only forms a clearer omnibus for previous readers, but also brings Laity’s work forward to a wider and more diverse readership.

Laity’s reviews are particularly fascinating, if you can get to them without being entirely distracted by the true “oddities” along the way. While one of her essays on folklore discusses the performance aspects of the remarkable Alan Moore’s own openly magical lifestyle, Laity also reviews the significant documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore in detailed and sensitive terms. Music, literature, and films all feature, suggesting by context a kind of association that might make a reader reconsider the ways in which we classify art objects by genre. Surely the elements that bind artistic works together are, in fact, greater, than formal differences? The review list reads like a catalogue of Kate Laity’s interests, which, thankfully, cast a wide net over the interesting and unusual cultural products of the last few years.

For a collection that brings together the elements of a multifaceted mind and an industrious keyboard over a period of years, Rook Chant also conveys a remarkable sense of harmony between its elements. Perhaps this is due to Laity’s well-considered enthusiasm for her subject matter as well as her consistent awareness of the needs of her readership in terms of explanation, clarification, and the use of common cultural ground to convey what may be entirely novel concepts. The exuberance that drives these essays brings something back from the medieval past to modern readers: that excitement contained in a varied collection, that certainty that they are journeying into the unknown on a hand picked tour of the unusual. This miscellany reminds us, like all good catalogues of the fantastic, of the richness and strangeness of literary tradition and of human experience.

Link to Rook Chant:
http://www.amazon.com/Rook-Chant-ebook/dp/B008B7WV8I

-by Hannah Means-Shannon, Hannah Menzies on Facebook and Twitter

Urban Folk Art Group Show Brooklyn Bridge Birthday Celebration

My recent account of the fabulous art installment and show opening celebrating the 129th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge featuring art by Dean Haspiel, Seth Kushner, and Jen Ferguson, can be found at Trip City.net and here:

http://welcometotripcity.com/2012/06/urban-folk-art-brooklyn-bridge-129th-anniversary-group-show/

Meet the Magus Part 2: The Universal Dance in Snakes and Ladders

My second installment of Meet the Magus, a study of Moore's magical belief systems in his work, can be found at Sequart via the link below:

http://www.sequart.org/magazine/11784/meet-the-magus-part-2-the-universal-dance-in-alan-moore-and-eddie-campbell%E2%80%99s-snakes-and-ladders/

Creating A Monster: A Review of Creator Owned Heroes #1

 


I have a magazine fetish. It’s not too much of a problem most of the time since I simply don’t allow myself to buy them. I’ve been this way since I was a kid and yes, it may have something to do with comics. I’m not entirely sure where those two demons met and began to influence me. It’s the texture of the fluid pages, the glossy covers, and most importantly the combination of words and images in sharply defined, often contrasting colors. The fonts alone are enough to make me glance through a magazine. What are they going to use in combination? Does it really work? It’s always a new form of visual poetry, clashing or flowing. But magazine content can often be inane and I try not to further strain the floors of my house with ephemera that I don’t have more of an intellectual investment in.

The trouble started when Dark Horse started releasing Dark Horse Presents again and it was pretty gorgeous. The covers were great, the wide array of contents drawn by different artists, often painterly in style. Of course I had to buy them.

Then something worse happened: Creator Owned Heroes finally hit the shelves. At first, I honestly thought it was a comic book with anthology contributors. I wasn’t aware that things would be a little different until I picked it up in the shop and it felt just a tad heavier than I expected. And then there was the cover that wasn’t quite a comic cover somehow. Dread set in.


There were at least a half-dozen fonts on the cover. In multiple colors. With feature images. It was definitely a Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo moment. The cover of issue 1 is ridiculously attractive; the color palette of greys, greens, the occasional dash of yellow conveyed a lot to me about the content. It said spy, action, futuristic settings, and I really couldn’t recall ever having seen anything quite like it from it’s poised, alarmingly placid gun-toting action muse to the text-popping layout. But the real vertigo was when I realized there were two covers. The second cover featured that burnt orange typical of grindhouse 70’s films and presented a cast of disaffected survivalists of some kind seeming to zoom forward out of the page. Double jeopardy. I was a little afraid to open this thing, really, so after a quick glance, it sat for a few days on my table while I occasionally changed the cover facing “up”.

But I had to know and it got to me eventually. The debut of American Muscle kicks off the new enterprise and what better way to convey the energy and desires of a new “vehicle” than with a car-chase set in a deserted future wasteland? Artist Kevin Mellon’s style immediately steers the reader away from mainstream comics expectations. Sharp, active, with a liberal dose of frame-breaking page layouts, it seems to owe some homage to manga while insisting on some of the weightier aspects of realism. Writer Steve Niles jumps in with rapid-fire storytelling and shorthand character introductions while maintaining a fair amount of tension. Neither the narrative nor the dialogue get in the way of the “action” at the heart of the first installment.

Trigger Girl 6, also the slick visual masthead for the cover of issue 1, establishes its own visual tone right away. Its milky colors, veering from silky pastels to sharp 1960’s reminiscent contrasts of red, black, and white seem to hover in an alien world of uncluttered panels. Its spidery font confirms a certain foreignness to the reader, establishing the visual language of the comics’ new world very quickly while silent panels emphasize a certain elegance of visual storytelling. It’s an old story but a good one: this is what comics can do and where their strength lies, in well-planned panels and accessible layouts. Not to mention Trigger Girl 6 is a force to be reckoned with, steeped for all the clear storytelling, in mystery: who exactly is she and who controls her? It’s a no brainer to want to read more next time. Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray introduce some masterful storytelling with a minimum of excess.

Following the comics installments, Creator Owned Heroes really reveals its multifarious nature as it plunges into magazine features which capture that old magazine appeal of not being exactly sure what you’re going to find. A welcome from Jimmy Palmiotti, a personal list of best movies this year from him, a rambling soulful commentary from Justin Gray on what he hopes this magazine will be: that’s just the beginning. But it’s not purely about entertainment, though I’m sure the creators would agree that entertainment is their top priority.

The unusual place of this magazine in the industry and the rather elaborate gestures which it, by its very existence, is making about the nature of comics creation and fandom come to the fore in the second half of the magazine in varying forms. Justin Gray states simply that in many of the arts “creator ownership has traditionally been a rare thing”. The conversation is a prescient one since you can’t go more than a few days without reading something on blogs or twitter about lawsuits, ownership, hero-creation, or even the trials and astonishing successes of Kickstarter-funded projects. Things are changing but I wouldn’t say that it’s clear exactly what the nature of comics-creation ownership will be even a couple of years from now. Gray also points out that economic crises have cause a ripple effect whereby well-established comics commodities are being remade and repackaged over and over again, threatening to choke us with overexposure to our own favorite characters. A return to curiosity, and a willingness to expand experience may just save the day. The eclecticism of issue 1 falls right into line with this philosophy.

An up close and rather direct interview with Neil Gaiman touches on these themes, particularly the “exploitation of the creators” typical of comics in the past, but the hopeful, small steps he and others have made to establishing the voice of the comics creator in a field now dominated by big industry. His last piece of advice to writers, to insist on producing good material through mastering your craft, reminds us that plenty of “good” material may be choked out of the market without determined strides toward self-publishing as seen in this new magazine.

You’ll notice, as you flip through Creator Owned Heroes issue 1, that the ensemble cast each gets a look in and a due space to extend a word to the reader. This is another unusual feature for comics, but not, perhaps for magazines, suggesting some of the good things the mixed medium can supply. This is another way in which, as Steve Bunche says, the magazine is “coming to you straight and undiluted from its makers”. If this were a farmer’s market, the farmers are there to assure you that they pulled it all from the bare earth with their two hands. Needless to say, there’s plenty of well-deserved pride in telling the reader “I made this” rather than having to take a backseat to corporate branding. The sense of getting to know the creators is also enticing; readers get the real-world back story of how these guys came to be working on such a gutsy comics-first enterprise, random comic convention photo ops included for delectation. Taken together, these articles tell the story of Creator Owned Heroes. It’s an origin story for a new entity and it allows the reader to see the faces and hear the voices behind the pages.

Two other non-comics related features round off the first issue: a substantial article presenting Juli Abene and her sister Alex Abene as they cosplay Trigger Girl 6 into photo-realist life, and a featurette interview with photographer Seth Kushner, whose book with Christopher Irving, Leaping Tall Buildings, has brought an engagingly visual documentary feel to the history of comics. Kushner’s current work, helping curate the literary arts salon website, TripCity.net, with Dean Haspiel highlights another mode of self-publication in comics currently on the rise: establishing a digital presence to make practical steps toward readership.

[Photo by Seth Kushner]

It’s a hard day for us comics fans when a new comics magazine comes out and it leaps into taking itself seriously from the first page onward. That means we not only want to read it, but we should read it if we care about the future of comics. For all the time spent in chats and arguments on the internet about the role of commodities in comics and the vices of cynical publication practices, there must be a moment or two in the day to support a new form of publication that avoids many of these gray areas in the comics industry. When I reached for a comic, I bought a magazine. I wanted to read it for the magazine style but stayed for the content. Creator Owned Heroes establishes several very dangerous precedents here. And I’m pretty sure that if we go back to the days of the comics magazine, it will be all over for me. I’ll be one of those people hoarding things and skittering away in front of night-vision cameras on reality television shows before too long. Thanks, guys. You’ve created a monster.

–This was written by Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on FB and @HannahMenzies on Twitter

Strangely Familiar: The Five-Dimensional Adventures of Dirk Davies

So what’s the big deal about The Five Dimensional Adventures of Dirk Davies? Why should it attract so much attention beyond the quirkiness value of a comic that’s not only digitally produced by Dean Haspiel and Ben McCool, but inspired, like the rest of the Shiftylook comics fleet, by video games from the 80’s? The unlikelihood of the concept makes people look twice; we remember the video games vaguely or fondly and it cues a nostalgic tune in the back of our minds. We liked those games that now seem so low-tech because they engaged our imaginations with their strangeness. There was no way images could play out on those small television screens (more often than not the old half-broken TVs in our bedrooms where friends clustered, neck-craning for not much of a view) to match the concepts suggested by the titles. The graphics weren’t up to it. That didn’t matter. We filled in the rest, imaginatively, the way people used to “see” the The Shadow on the radio. Shiftylook decided all that possibility could stage a comeback and given a starting point, great artists and writers have leapt into the fray and produced their visions of what those fictional worlds could have been like. That’s why Shiftylook’s new web-comics are interesting: the sheer diversity of artistic views and the energy behind all these adventure stories. And then there’s the ideal lack of predictability. The plots were thin on those games, barely more than a premise, so the freshness of the new tales is going to get you even as you recognize a thing or two along the way.

But what’s the big deal about Dirk Davies, particularly? I could try to explain some kind of theory about why its elements, in combination, make it so fascinating, but that would be a false impression that it’s explainable. It’s not. I like that very much about Dirk Davies. I don’t know why a caveman is falling through dimensions behind Davies in the recent 16th episode, nor why a Crocadoid is called a Crocadoid. I don’t know how Dirk Davies “hides” his massive blaster gun under his overcoat (I want to call it a trenchcoat but it’s not quite), nor why he wears an overcoat at all given it’s not earth and not particularly rainy. Then there’s the button down shirt, come to think of it. What’s with the shirt? I tell myself to give it up for now and come back to those questions later. What I can do, even if I can’t explain the things I love in the series that remain unexplained, is try to pin-point a few cultural things that I am reminded of when I read Dirk Davies that make me feel at once “at home” and also somewhere strange and unknowable. I’m “at home” because this is noir detective fiction with plenty of tropes from novels, stories, films and the like. I’m somewhere strange and unknowable because I’m in a 1950’s-1960’s sci-fi world that is intentionally unknowable but visually striking from the covers of pulp magazines to the lowest budget film of the period.

Dirk Davies plays a symphony of noir in both narrative and visual elements from the get go. Dirk is “hired” by a government entity to track down a killer. He’s a hired gun and he has a couple of guns like any good gumshoe. The motives of his employer are not revealed, a major element in many noir tales, leaving room for reassessment and suprises later. Dirk also has a companion vehicle. It’s no exaggeration to say that hundreds of noir depictions of detectives connect them to the vehicles in which they lurk, lurch, and give chase. In fact, it’s typical in detective stories to know more about the gumshoe’s car than his apartment. It becomes an extension of personality. Dirk soon hits the trail and knows, intuits, expects for it to be circuitous and more of a meander than a straight line. Not only is that good story-telling, it’s part of the experience for the reader.

 

Blind alleys, tricks, minor connections are going to force Dirk to make use of his beaten-in detective experience. That’s the thing. In noir stories we almost never meet a new detective. They always have time-worn wisdom to dole out around cigarette butts. They know what they are doing, goddamn it. Even if the audience/reader doesn’t. Then we can be impressed at the appropriate junctures. Dirk does all those things (without giving too much away) and actually impresses the reader with more of these masterful moments of problem-solving the further you get into his adventure. One more thing: noir detectives are uncluttered. They don’t have a lot of stuff and they don’t rely on using much more than their wits to get things done. They are their own best resource. One constant from noir books and films is the telephone, however, fitting in tandem with the role of the car. The gumshoe makes and receives endless phone calls in dark apartments, backs of bars, or even drug stores, and having gotten that signal or bit of leading information, makes a dive for the car and he’s off on another brush with danger. I mention this because Dirk’s cell-phone is one of his greatest resources, and zaps him into transport with the near immediacy of the phone-car dynamic in noir.

 

But to say that Dirk Davies is just a fantastic and fantastically drawn detective story is not enough. It’s a hybrid text of the highest caliber because Haspiel and McCool have taken on a truly challenging combination in bringing noir to science fiction. They are in good company, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever been an easy enterprise. They have to combine the familiar with the strange at just the right pitch to keep the visual narrative entertaining and not too confusing.

And it could get confusing, but it doesn’t. Good science fiction films from the 50’s managed that too- outlandish premises, fast pace action, and campy acting kept audiences in their seats because of one thing: a balanced combination. One of the signatures of success from this period is style. Did the futuristic lines of the space vehicles, weapons, costumes, appeal and somehow capture the strange along with a kind of desire for emulation? We have always wanted the future to be stylish in a peculiar way that we haven’t achieved yet.

Dirk Davies does that and then some. It doesn’t cloy us with the unrealistic. The gritty noir aspects help ground the futuristic aspects of Dirk’s multi-verse, but the alien and multi-temporal worlds he visits have that distinctive air: a glimpse of the truly strange, from the sources he interrogates to the captors who think they have a grip on him. The strangeness is for the reader/audience. It’s all in a day’s work for Dirk. That means he’s on top of it. Nothing phases him as long as he has his wits about him. And by wits I probably mean a really big gun, a waiting car, and a handy-dandy tech device known as a phone. That’s why Dirk Davies, with its alarming and moody color palette can take us on quite a trip: we think we know what to expect in our two-fisted detective, but if we think we know what he’s really up against, it’s all surprises, stylish surprises, from here on out.

 

To read Dirk Davies, head over to Shiftylook at: http://shiftylook.com/comics/dirkdavies/

–I am Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on FB and @HannahMenzies on Twitter