Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Captain Marvel Adventures #22
Horace L. Gold
Fantastic Four #10
Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules
Supreme: The Story of the Year
DC Comics Presents #52
Ambush Bug: Year None
Doctor 13: Architecture & Morality
The Haunted Tank
Bryan Lee O'Malley
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Captain Marvel (Marvel Comics)
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko
Ayn Rand and Objectivism
Recent Books of Interest
Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 1 by Roy Thomas and a host of others (Marvel)
In 1967, Marvel introduced their Captain Marvel, preventing DC using the name when they re-introduced the
classic character in the 70s (DC titled their series Shazam!). The Marvel version, a Kree anti-hero,
initially bears little resemblance to his name forbearer. After a series of complicated and inane events, Captain
Marvel eventually finds himself trapped in the dimensional wasteland, the Negative Zone, and can only escape when
changing places with the teenager Rick Jones. Later under the stewardship of Jim Starlin, Captain Marvel achieved
a cult status. Sadly, this collection reprints stories prior to Starlin's run and offers only a handful of good stories.
The Programme by Peter Milligan (writer) and C. P. Smith (artist) (Wildstorm)
Human weapons of mass destruction, created during the Cold War, re-awaken to continue the US-Soviet conflict. But
there is no Soviet Union and America has other worries such as an ongoing war in the Middle East. The usually reliable
Milligan scripts an intelligent, contemporary espionage tale with a science fiction kick. Smith's art, although muddy
in places, eerily chronicles this secret war.
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics)
The first critical retrospective of the co-creator of Spider-man, Strange and Stranger grants an inside look into the
workings and artistic life of this unusual man. Bell successfully argues Ditko's place within the pantheon of great
artists while at the same time presenting the many shortcomings of Ditko the person. Ditko's strong adherence to Ayn
Rand's philosophy of Objectivism ostracized and made a pariah out of the artist. Bell shines light on many diverse
corners of the comics industry in an attempt to understand the reclusive Ditko. Lavishly illustrated throughout, the
well-crafted Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is a must for fans of the artist in particular
and comic book history in general.
Architects of the Real
Reality plays by its own rules. This tenet, in the form of metafiction,1 litters the comic book
While this type of self-referential literature was quite common in comics strips, the earliest story of this type that I
uncovered,2 appeared in Captain Marvel Adventures #223, dated March
26, 1943, some eight years after the publication of New Fun, the first comic book of original material. In "Captain
Marvel and The Revolt of the Comics," all the characters in Dextrose Q. Penn's line of comics engage in a sympathy strike after
Zartan, lord of the jungle, decides he's tired of living in the jungle and decides to move to the city. Penn enlists Captain
Marvel in an attempt to stop the strike, but the hero cannot fight strikers because he "can only fight villains." The walkout
ends after Zartan gets thrown out of every night club in town and decides to head back to Africa.
Another early metafiction piece ran in Green Lama #1 (December 1944). Written and drawn by science fiction
writer Horace L. Gold, Lieutenant Hercules parodies the superhero titles of the period. Account Wilbur Klutz switches places
for an evening with his boss, who has received death threats. Crooks kidnap Klutz, mistaking him for his boss, and lock him
in a room with some comic books. The frightened nebbish wishes that he was "endowed with the super-human ability of these
comic gentlemen." A crack of lighting and Merlin appears asking who does he "wish to resemble?" The shocked Klutz cannot
decide, so Merlin rules he "can try them all out." After uttering the magic word "BRAAACK!", Klutz transforms into
Lieutenant Hercules. Running through the first eight issues of Green Lama, Gold uses a satirical approach
to super hero storytelling while his protagonist often talks to the reader.
Perhaps my earliest recollection of metafiction in comics, Fantastic Four #10 (January 1963) featured
appearances by both writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, as chroniclers of the "real world" Fantastic Four. Dr. Doom uses
the duo to lure Reed Richards into a trap. Doom and Richards exchange bodies and as usual, the FF narrowly stop the villain
before his plot comes to fruition.
Extrapolating from this groundwork, writer James Sturm and artist Guy Davis relate the life of the troubled group of
non-super powered individuals that influenced the creation of the comic book foursome. Set in the 1958, Fantastic Four:
Unstable Molecules (2003) recounts the stormy relationship between Dr. Reed Richards and the much younger, orphaned
Susan Strum, who functions as guardian to her teenage brother, Johnny. War hero Ben Grimm, Reed's best friend, manages
a gym. Since Reed is often absent researching, the lovelorn Ben and the bored Sue develop a flirtatious friendship. The
angry Johnny runs off with a group of beatniks. All these events come to an explosive finale at a Strum party. In
attendance are the Sturm cartoonist neighbor and several of his comic book pals including the duo, Stan and Jack.
Strum's and Davis's multi-layered story encourages multiple readings, each time garnering new insights. By using 50s
stereotypes, Unstable Molecules presents new and interesting incarnations of the well known characters.
Not surprisingly, Alan Moore has scripted several excellent metafictional texts. Among his best and least know
example, Supreme: The Story of the Year (1996-97) re-imagines Rob Liefeld's Superman ripoff. In his initial
story, Moore introduces the Supremacy, a place outside of reality that serves as the home for all previously
retconned4 versions and variants of Supreme. Intriguing characters such as Macrosupreme,
Son of Supreme, Sister Supreme, Suprememarch, Supreme White, Supreme Gold, Sally Supreme, Scrappy Supreme, and even
Squeak the Supremouse litter the story landscape. As new each "revision" occurs, the then-current Supreme
is "canceled from existence" and journeys to the Supremacy. Moore successfully uses this idea to re-envision the
previously dull character, giving it relevancy as far more than just another Superman clone.
DC Comics Presents #52 (December 1982), starring Superman and the New Doom Patrol, introduced Ambush
Bug, who from these humble beginnings evolved into arguably the funniest metafictional character in comics. Initially,
a goofy teleporting villain dressed as a green bug, the character under the artistic talents of creator Keith Giffen
and scripter Robert Loren Fleming embodied the combined inherent silliness of super-hero comics. Every corner of the
DC publishing empire was ripe for parody. In the first issue of his eponymous solo series (June 1985), a doll flies
through the windows of private eye (don't ask) Ambush Bug's office. Seeing this as a portent, he dubs the figure
Cheeks, the Wonder Toy. Later in the same issue, Ambush Bug leaves his partner behind to defuse a bomb. Not
surprisingly, the inanimate toy is destroyed in the explosion. The distraught Ambush Bug quickly recovers when
he "detects a disturbance in the Force."
Ambush Bug: "Hey, that's not the Force."
The lunacy continues unabated through two four issues mini-series, two specials, and an appearance in Secret
Origins #48 (April 1990), where multiple possible origins are presented, each equally implausible. A new Ambush
Bug six issue series (Ambush Bug: Year None) begins later this month.
Ambush Bug: "Wow! It's the source!!"
Ambush Bug sees "DEAD HEROES SELL" spray painted on a nearby wall and yells, "Hooray! Cheeks didn't die in vain!"
Drunken old dude floating in the clouds: "Heck no, kid. You're guaranteed an extra ten thousand sales! Hey,
yer ole Guardian Angel's always looking out for you! Hic
Characters like Ambush Bug help mitigate the after-effects of a comic book industry that takes itself way too
seriously. It's good to be reminded of the inherent goofiness of the super hero story.
Speaking of which, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang attempted to return some fun to the currently
moribund DC Universe with Doctor 13: Architecture & Morality (2007). Using Doctor Thirteen, the world's foremost
skeptic who denies that anything supernatural or unexplainable exists, as the centerpiece of a quasi-team of truly
forgotten and often forgettable DC characters, Azzarello scripts a surprisingly amusing and insightful treatise into
the world of contemporary comics. Genius Jones (created by Alfred Bester!), I...Vampire, Anthro, the Primate Patrol (a
team of intelligent Nazi gorillas!), Infectious Lass, the ghost of 19th-century Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart
(from The Haunted Tank), and Thirteen's magic-wielding daughter Traci join Thirteen as he challenges the
mysterious Architects -- the shapers of the universe, who wish to retcon him and the others out of existence.
J.E.B. Stuart: Who are The Architects?
Not all quality metafiction are super hero based. Bryan Lee O'Malley's excellent Scott Pilgrim series of
graphic novels tells the tale of the titular character and his struggles against his girlfriend's seven evil exes. The
four published volumes (Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life 2004, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World 2005, Scott
Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness 2006, and Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together 2007) get progressively stranger
as we learn more about Scott, his girlfriend Romona, and an increasingly odd cast of characters. Setting the series
in Toronto, O'Malley uses comic book and pop culture tropes to illustrate his intelligently scripted stories. The
unusual seems ordinary and common to the characters. When a ninja appears to challenge Scott, he opens a door and
escapes into subspace, only to reappear somewhere else in the city. He takes it all in stride. It's not uncommon
for a character to relate a story and the say "then there was 50 pages of fight scenes." A movie, directed by Edgar
Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) and starring Michael Cera as Scott and Mary Elizabeth Winstead
as Romona has been announced.
Genius Jones: The ones who decide who's who and who isn't. The are the official guides to the universe. When it
was decided that the one fashioned by The Architects that preceded them didn't make sense they knocked the old one down
and built a new one. This is the fourth time it's happened -- in this universe.
Traci Thirteen: "This universe?"
Genius Jones: There's another universe that these Architects are at war with. One that reinvents itself
every summer -- So "things will never be the same again," it claims.
A form of self-referential literature concerned with the art and devices of fiction itself, Wiktionary accessed June 29, 2008.
Thanks to Richard Lupoff and Lenny Bailes
Far more famous for the first chapter of the legendary "Monster Society of Evil" story arc
Retroactive continuity (or informally retcon) is the deliberate changing of previously established
facts in a work of serial fiction. The change itself is informally referred to as a "retcon," and
the act of writing and publishing a retcon is called "retconning". Wikipedia, accessed June 30, 2008
Copyright © 2008 Rick Klaw
Rick Klaw produced four years of the popular monthly SF Site
column "Geeks With Books", and supplied countless reviews,
essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including,
The Austin Chronicle,
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures
RevolutionSF, King Kong Is Back!, Conversations
With Texas Writers, Farscape Forever, Electric Velocipede, Cross Plains
Universe, and Steampunk. MonkeyBrain Books published the collection of his essays, reviews,
and other things Klaw, Geek
Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century.
He currently blogs at The Geek Curmudgeon
and Dark Forces.