Who is Northwest Smith?

Though Northwest Smith is an entirely fictional character, he has opinions about everything, most especially comics, comic books, and related media. This section contains his views on these forms of popular culture, past and present.

From the Desk of N.W. Smith

07/04/05: Went to the local cyclopian mega-plex to see Batman Begins today, and enjoyed the film immensely. Jumped a little too suddenly into the story-line (I thought the projectionist had accidentally queued the second reel right after the opening credits). But I found the gritty realism and bow to exploring the psychology of Batman to complement each other very well; and when things did start going over the top towards the end of the movie, Batman's physical heroics and daring-do came off being a lot more realistic and plausible because of it. I also liked the fact that they subtly emphasized that Batman's real "superpower" was his ability as a detective. The fight-scenes could have been a filmed better: although they conveyed Batman's status as a kick-ass street-fighter against common thugs and better trained henchmen, the action was very claustraphobic and a bit muddled.

The best part of the afternoon, though, was when M'Lady and I had dinner at the meg-plex's restaurant, and a couple in their 70s who'd seen the film at the same screening as we did asked what we thought about it. Turns out they'd been reading comics like Batman from the literal beginning of the genre, back in the late 1930's! M'Lady was just humoring me about coming along for the show (she classifies comic books and derived media with cigarettes and caffience as a form of socially permissable substance abuse), but even she got into a very lively discussion of how comics and other media's attempts to adapt them have evolved over three-quarters of a century.

07/01/05: The Wachowski brothers are best known for being the fathers of The Matrix film trilogy and the burgeoning cottage industry of products and services associated with it. But recently, they decided to take the plunge into the world of comics, and one of the ideas they came up with is a bizarre yet slam-bang new SF/Fantasy action series called Doc Frankenstein

As the name implies, Doc Frankenstein is a blending of Mary Shelly's seminal man-made monster with the 1930's/1940's hero-pulp super-star Doc Savage. But in this case, the conceit is fitting: if you've ever actually read the original Frankenstein, the monster wasn't the inarticulate, shambling simpleton that those great Universal horror moviesUniversal horror movies of the 30's and 40's made him out to be. But it was suggested in the book that the monster was functionally immortal, the spark of life in him so strong that he could never die and not be killed, at least not easily. So the Wachowski brothers run with that: Doc Frankenstein makes his way through the world, applying his brilliant mind and unserving belief in the reason and science that created him to serve a human race that still considers him a monster . . . even if for different reasons than it did two centuries before.

In the first three issues, the writers plunge you right into the action. To establish his selflessness, Doc's has just returned from saving Washington, DC from being destroyed by a Godzilla-wannabe. He then returns to his stronghold in the American Southwest, a city-sized arcology where he offers refuge and asylum for other outcasts like himself. But almost immediately upon his return home, the stronghold comes under attack, and the supporting caste of friends and enemies--human, not-so-human, and far from human--are quickly established. With a faithfulness to original Doc Savage scribe Lester Dent, our Hero is plunged into a world of trouble, and that's how things stand by the end of the current (third) issue.

From a technical level, this is a well-done book: the artwork and narrative are top-notch, with a blend of surprising realism amidst the truly wild concepts and gadgets. But the one thing that is really hooking me is the character of Doc Frankenstein himself. Philosophically, he's a materialist: with all the supernatural trappings we've associated with the Frankenstein legend, the original novel is actually the first science fiction story: the monster was created by science, not magic. Doc himself rejects religion and mysticism as irrational; and while he clearly has an ethical code by which he lives, it's not grounded in any traditional form of morality. And, to the Wachowski's credit, they have no hesitation challenging that swaggering world-view by the end of the third issue!

I'm not just looking forward to the next issue of Doc Frankenstein: here's hoping the Wachowski take the funding out of the Matrix empire's petty cash account and turn this sucker into a live-action movie!

06/17/05: I am a big fan of the comics of Howard Chaykin, particularly when illustrates his own stories. His most famous work was for one of the early "alternate" comics' successes of the 1980's, American Flagg. The first twelve issues of that comic are just about perfect: not long-underwear types slugging it out, but an old-school, Terry & The Pirates style rollicking SF/adventure story, liberally sprinkled with political and social satire, parody, comedy, sex and violence, all told in an almost multi-media style that was a surprisingly prescient view of today's information-saturated culture.

But unlike Milton Caniff, Chaykin was never one to spend twenty or thirty years of his life on just one thing. After about another year doing Flagg, he moved onto new challenges: book cover illustration, screen-writing and story editing for TV and movies. But every once in a while, he'd get the comic book bug, and settle down to write and/or illustrate a graphic novel or a limited-series. Last year is was DC Comics Challengers of the Unknown limited series, six issues of Chaykin's inspired, over-the-top art and story that both embraces yet bitingly satirizes conspiracy theories and the paranoid fantasies of both the Right and the Left. My only dissappointment was that, at the end, I knew Chaykin had little intent to carry the story any further, or at least until he had a good story to tell.

It is with the same limited trepidation that I've been happily snarfing up his latest effort for DC/Wildstorm, City of Tomorrow. Once again, Chaykin's art and story-telling ability are impeccable, as are his tongue-in-cheek assaults on authoritarianism and lunatic fringe paranoia. But with City, he's technically out of the DC "continuity", and can tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end without having to "rec-con" somebody elses work as happened with Challengers.

Tucker is a black-ops soldier who was rewarded for his years of successful service with an attempt on his life by his masters. Left for dead, he survives and makes a break for the only "home" he knows, a high-tech utopian community called Columbia, created by the marketing and technical genius of his father, Eli Foyle. But what was supposed to be a nano-tech paradise, where all the dirty-work was done by humanoid robots and people lived in 50's family suburban sit-com splendor, has gone terribly wrong. Tucker is both vindicated and appalled at what has happened: he'd rebelled against his father and run away from home as a teen-ager because of what a total artifical shuck Columbia's culture represented. Now he finds himself teaming up with his equally hard-headed, foul-mouthed father to try to take back control of this dystopic Disneyworld.

06/09/05: The Black Panther is back! And I, for one, am wonderfully entertained by his return!

The Panther first appeared about forty years ago in Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four, and the basic character really hasn't been overly ret-conned since: T'Challa is the leader of a central African nation of Wakanda, a culture that is technologically, economically, and socially superior to just about any other nation on Earth, and has been as far back as anyone can remember. The ultimate leader of that nation has always been the Black Panther, and T'Challa is the latest in a long line of such brainy (his scientific genius rivals that of Mr. Fantastic) and ass-kicking (think Spiderman without the wall-crawling and web-slinging) kings and princes.

There are those that have argued that the Panther was Marvel's "token" nod to the Civil Rights struggles of the day (he first appeared in 1966, and his name was no doubt inspired by the Deep South political party of the same name that : the first African-American superhero from a major comics "house". He also allowed artist Jack Kirby to mix his gleaming, ultra-high tech backgrounds with jungle motifs of wood, vines, leaves and fronds to represent Wakanda's combination of modern and traditonal, of scientific progress occuring in harmony with the natural order. And that, I think, is what hooked me: that you could have a technology in harmony with the ecology, and without all the nasty social upheaval and class-struggle that funky Western civilization went through . . . not that I honestly believe you could do such a thing, but that kind of dreamin' is what things like comic books are all about, kind of the way Star Trek: The Next Generations characters always scratch their heads and wonder how human beings could have been so hung up on all that materialism/capitalism/nationalism sh*t back in the 20th Century.

But that, in a nutshell, is the "challenge" of the Black Panther as a super-hero character: Superheroes (and villians) are, for the most part, urban folks, and their adventures are usually grounded in gleaming skyscrapers (Metropolis), the mean streets (Gotham City), or both (Marvel's New York City). Dragging them away from their lattes, cable TV and KFC for the jungles, veldts, and eco-friendly cities of Wakanda requires some creative plotting. And THAT has always plagued the various incarnations of the Black Panther: keep him in his "natural habitat" as king of an independent African nation, and it's a stretch to get big-name villians to drop in for some maniacal plotting and scenery-smashing throw-downs; but bring him to the Big City, and he's just another long-underwear type doin' the ol' thud'n'blunder.

Luckily, the current Marvel Knights incarnation of the Panther successfully deals with this problem in very creative--and topical--ways. For starters, they keep the Panther in Africa, in his role as ruler and protector of a positively bad-ass nation that has been sending invaders, black and white, packing for hundreds of years. Wakanda is not just a techological marvel: it also sits on huge reserves of oil and other vital resources, particularly vibranium, one of the ingrediants in Captain America's indestructable shield. And its refusal to kow-tow to the West in general, and the United States in particular, has a poorly disguished Condoleezza Rice-clone thinking of Wakanda as a "rogue state", and trying to figure out ways to put a more cooperative regime in charge. Others, though, have the same idea, and they've assembled a team of "B" and "C" Marvel villians -- crazed cyborg Klaw, goofy French martial artis Batrok, the not-overly-bright Rhino, a second string Radioactive Man, and a pegasus-riding Black Knight on loan from the Vatican's black ops division--to lead an invasion from a corrupt neighoring country . . .

Which is about where the story now stands, with the publication of the fourth issue in the series. What has sustained me up to this point is the art of John Romita, Jr. (son of comics Grand Master John Romita, Sr.), which I've really come to enjoy in the ten or so years since he established his own style. What hadn't occurred to me until now is Romita's touches of satire and humor that are strewn through-out the story. Both Romita (inked by the always brilliant Klaus Janson) and the writer Reginald Hudlin are clearly having fun using their book as a critique of both the new and old Imperialisms (I doubt it's a coincidence that the nationalities of the super-villians--Dutch (Klaw), French (Batrok), USA (Rhino), Great Britain (Black Knight), and Russia (Radioactive Man)--represent the five great colonial interlopers in Africa during the last 200 years) as well as conjuring up a society like Wakanda that covers the solemn trial-by-combat of the reigning Black Panther like a WWE Pay-Per-View, or where the nation's traditional religious beliefs don't quite jibe with the rational scientific method that made the country a high-tech utopia. And though it aludes to serious ideas, this new Black Panther doesn't take itself too serious, unlike just about all the other grim and humorless comics in the Marvel Knights continuity.

And the aforementioned scenery-smashing throw-down has just begun! And given the fact that most Marvel story-arcs cover 7 or 8 issues to make it easy to package them as "graphic novels" . . . I'm just glad the new Black Panther is monthly!

06/05/05: This is why I got out of academic life lo those many years ago:

There are lots more reasons at the wonderful PHDComics.com website, and within the collections of these hysterically funny but ooooooh so true reflections on what it's like to nail down the Piled-Higher 'n' Deeper degree. The only thing that shocks me is that, nearly twenty years after I said "Adieu, Casablanca" to graduate student life, it doesn't look like anything has changed.

06/03/05: I love The Goon!

Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had beat all his health problems, survived well into the 1950's, and went to work writing for E.C. Comics . . . except, instead of the horror line, he ended up working for Mad Magazine . . . And in frustration, he decided to satirize all of E.C.'s other titles--horror, science fiction, crime, romance, blood'n'guts war, etc.--with the gleeful aid of Bill Gaines, Wally Wood, and the other creative maniacs of that by-gone era.

And that's just scratching the surface of the bizarre glory that is The Goon.

My first introduction to the character was the side-on image of our hero in a cherry '57 Chevy, leaning out the window with a .857 revolver (NOT a typo: that slug-thrower was HUGE) clutched in his massive mitt, pumping shots into a giant squid that had wrapped itself around the front end of the car with what was clearly evil intent (so powerful and hilarious was this image that it was ultimately turned into a t-shirt logo). Realizing that such well-crafted lunacy needed to be supported, I've since bought most of the back issues or invested in the trade-sized paperbacks that compile six or seven of the older comics plus odds'n'ends to fatten the package.

If you'd like to give The Goon a try, first seek out your local comic-book shop, as patronizing such establishments encourages folks to keep producing comics! But if there's nothing in your immediate aread, head to the Dark Horse Comics website to order things on-line, or click the links below for the trade-paperback (TPB) collections of The Goon.