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Frank Miller/DC Comics
Frank Miller/DC Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Frank Miller/DC Comics
Frank Miller/DC Comics

Every week I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, and the web. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about or an upcoming comic that you'd like me to consider highlighting.

Dark Knight III: The Master Race

By Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson
DC Comics

Thirty years ago, Frank Miller changed comics forever with The Dark Knight Returns, maybe the most famous Batman comic of all time. It helped usher in a grim and violent era for superhero comics that still hasn’t left us. Fifteen years later, Miller dumbfounded many of his own fans with the deeply weird sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which was a garish, lowbrow satire of the superhero genre and the original DKR itself. It seemed to kickstart a disconcerting second phase to Miller’s career that alienated many of his original fans with off-putting books like the raunchy All-Star Batman & Robin and the anti-Islamic rant that is Holy Terror.

Now, another fifteen years later, comes the third installment with a name that makes Miller critics cringe: Dark Knight III: The Master Race. This time out, DC may be hedging their bets a little by pairing Miller with known quantities like co-writer Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) and veteran artists Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson (Miller’s original inker on DKR).

It’s a little unclear how much involvement Miller has in this book beyond providing the basic plot, but each issue of this series will be packaged with a mini-comic, and the first one is written and drawn by Miller himself and features The Atom. Both the mini comic and the main comic are set three years after DKSA. The main story, drawn by Kubert with heavy Miller influences on the layout, focuses primarily on the women on the Dark Knight universe: Carrie Kelley, Commissioner Ellen Yindel, and Lara, the daughter of Superman and Wonder Woman.

DK III is being billed as the “epic ending” of the Dark Knight series, but Miller has already announced that he plans to write a DKIV.

The Eternaut

by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano Lopez
Fantagraphics

The Eternaut is a revered science fiction classic in Argentina, though it is mostly unknown in the States, having never been translated to English until now. Serialized weekly in the Buenos Aires newspaper Hora Cero from 1957 to 1959, it was written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, a staunch leftist who structured the story with political allegories about collective strength triumphing over military might. Along with his biography of Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara, The Eternaut made Oesterheld and artist Francisco Solano Lopez enemies of the state. In 1977, Oesterheld and his family went into hiding and were never seen again, believed to have been disappeared by the Argentinian government. In order to avoid such a fate, Lopez fled Argentina for Spain.

The comic begins with a mysterious, phosphorescent snowfall that immediately kills anyone who comes in contact with it. A group of friends playing a card game notice what is happening outside and manage to seal themselves off from the danger and rig protection suits out of SCUBA gear. What appears to be a nuclear winter soon reveals itself to be an alien invasion, and one dangerous situation leads to another.

Mixing post-apocalyptic drama, aliens, and even time travel with political subtext and a literary sophistication that American science fiction comics of the era couldn't match, this is an absolutely gripping page-turner that holds up all these years later, thanks in large part to the care Fantagraphics has taken in translating and repackaging the material.

Here is some more information about the Fantagraphics edition, including an excerpt.

Apartment 3G

By Margaret Shulock and Frank Bolle
King Features Syndicate

For 54 years, Apartment 3G has appeared in newspapers and on the web via the King Features Syndicate, but on November 22 it ran its final strip. It was an anti-climactic, bordering-on-incoherent finale that, if you had been following this comic recently, you would've known to expect. As this AV Club article notes, a small collection of blogs sprouted up over the years dedicated to following this strip and cataloging just how odd it was becoming.

In 1952, psychiatrist Dr. Nicholas P. Dallis and artist Alex Kotzky created this soap opera strip about three unmarried working women sharing an apartment in New York (a novel subject at the time). Kotzky was an exquisite illustrator who gave Apartment 3G a fashionable look equal to any of the great "realistic” strips of that era. Dallis and Kotzky kept working on it up until their deaths (Dallis in 1991 and Kotzky in 1996). Kotzky’s family handed the strip over to writer Margaret Shulock and artist Frank Bolle who continued it until the very end. At some point, however, Shulock and Bolle brought the strip (unintentionally, but who knows?) to a level of absurdism that no one would expect.

Dialogue became incoherent, and the now 90-year-old Bolle's artwork seemed to only show talking heads and the barest indication of backgrounds.The increasingly bizarre plot lines introduced over the years seemed to never amount to anything and, in the final stretch, Shulock and Bolle jumped the story ahead four weeks in order to avoid tying up any of the loose threads. The very last strip combined disparate scenes from the previous week (as many of the Sunday strips tended to do). The addition of a never-before-seen dog peering over Margo’s shoulder perplexed anyone who had been following this strip.

Comics journalist Tom Spurgeon has a puzzled yet positive write-up that describes the path the strip ended up taking as containing a "what-we-call-Lynchian quality.” You can go back and read the final strips here, but I’d recommended reading them through one of the hilarious commentary blogs like The Lovely Ladies of Apartment 3G. A comic strip wandering off to a shaky end like this after half a century of daily output is sad and, perhaps, is a symptom of a greater extinction threat to daily comics. If you're looking for a silver lining, at least it seemed to entertain the few people that were still paying attention.

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8 Things You Might Not Know About Ziggy
Welcome Productions, YouTube
Welcome Productions, YouTube

Devoid of pants or much of a personality, cartoonist Tom Wilson’s Ziggy has been prompting pleasant chuckles out of readers since he first appeared in newspapers in 1971. The bulbous-nosed little unfortunate has, against the odds, become a highly recognizable character, extensively merchandised on everything from greeting cards to pencil erasers. Before the inevitable big-budget CGI reboot happens, check out some facts about Ziggy's history, why fans were upset when he once spoke, and the bittersweet origin of his distinctive name.

1. HE WAS ORIGINALLY AN ELEVATOR OPERATOR.

Ziggy had a circuitous route to the comics pages. The character was first created by American Greetings executive Tom Wilson in the 1960s. (Wilson would later have a hand in creating the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake.) Doodling an elevator operator who commented on the mundane events inside his small world, when Wilson first tried to sell it as a comic strip, there were no takers. When he resurrected the character for a 1969 American Greetings humor book, When You’re Not Around, the odd little man intrigued the wife of a Universal Press Syndicate executive. By 1971, Wilson and Ziggy were in 15 newspapers, a number that would eventually reach over 500. 

2. THE NAME “ZIGGY” WAS CHOSEN VERY DELIBERATELY.

Ziggy is often depicted as beleaguered and exasperated at the various obstacles life puts in front of him, from faulty ATMs to soured relationships. (He prefers to socialize with animals.) Wilson gave him the name “Ziggy” because the letter “Z” comes last in the alphabet and Wilson thought that was a proper position for his character, who often came last in life. (Another story has Wilson hearing the name from a colleague’s barber and remembering it.) In one strip, Ziggy is seen waiting for a rescue after a flood—but the responders are going in alphabetical order. In 1974, Wilson told a reporter that his full name is “Zigfried.”

3. WILSON TRAINED HIS SON TO DRAW HIM.

When Wilson died in 2011, his heir apparent was already selected. His son, Tom Wilson Jr., had been drawing the strip since 1987. Long before that, the elder Wilson would sit with his son at a table, draw Ziggy in a precarious position—a safe plummeting toward him from above, for example—and then instruct his son to draw a way out of the jam. Ziggy, Tom Jr. later said, was like his “successful little brother.”

4. HE WAS ENGINEERED TO BE LOVABLE.

Despite his general haplessness, Ziggy often draws sympathy and affection from readers. Wilson felt his large, circular nose and rotund body engendered feelings of warmth and told his son to go easy on his line drawing work. “Let’s keep Ziggy round and lovable,” the artist said. Ziggy also breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to readers, a technique Wilson felt further strengthened the feeling of companionship.

5. HE WOUND UP PAINTED ON THE SIDE OF A WATER TOWER.

For years, locals in Strongsville, Ohio have craned their necks to take in a curious sight: Ziggy appears on the side of one of their water towers. Wilson was from Cleveland, and when he heard a local sports team had painted the character up there in 1975, he offered to render a better portrait. Firefighters lifted him on a crane and allowed him to paint Ziggy next to the school’s mustang mascot. When the Cleveland Water Department threatened to cover him as part of a new paint job, residents signed a petition to prevent them from going through with the plan.

6. HE HAD HIS OWN BOARD GAME.

There was no limit to the kind of Ziggy product tie-ins hitting stores, including shirts, calendars, and mugs. But 1977’s A Day with Ziggy might be the most memorable. Players assumed the role of the put-upon blob, trying to avoid landing on a space that would worsen Ziggy’s day.

7. HE MET GENE SHALIT.

Ziggy first popped up in cartoon form in 1981, when he “appeared” in a segment with Today film critic Gene Shalit. Strangely, readers wrote in expressing disapproval of the spot, noting that Ziggy's voice didn’t mesh with what they had imagined he might sound like.

8. HE WON AN EMMY.

Ziggy made the jump to animation in 1982 with the ABC primetime special Ziggy’s Gift. Written by Wilson, it afforded Ziggy fans a closer look at the character’s daily life, including his sparsely-furnished apartment and a gig dressing as Santa for the holidays. At Wilson’s insistence, the character didn’t speak to avoid another Shalit situation. The special won an Emmy in 1983. Ziggy still wasn’t wearing any pants.

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12 Burning Facts About Hellboy
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Two decades before he would become a two-time Oscar-winner for The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro set out to make a movie about his favorite superhero: a big red demon with a big gun and a heart of gold. It took years to finally get the film off the ground, but in 2004 Hellboy finally made it to theaters, adding another piece to the beloved supernatural filmography that’s made del Toro a favorite among genre fans for a quarter of a century.

Though it never rose to the box office heights of The Avengers, and it never reached the end of its planned trilogy, Hellboy remains one of the most imaginative, thrilling superhero films of the 21st century. From early script changes to an accidentally deleted scene, here are 12 facts about how it was made.

1. HELLBOY WAS GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S FAVORITE SUPERHERO WELL BEFORE HE MADE THE MOVIE. 

Guillermo del Toro grew up with comic books, noting that he was flipping through them before he even knew how to read the words. That childhood fondness for the medium stayed with him into adulthood, and by the time he’d reached his early 30s he’d not only discovered the work of Mike Mignola, but began to consider the Hellboy creator one of his great comic book visual influences alongside legends like Will Eisner, Bernie Wrightson, and Richard Corben.

“Mignola, in my later years, already as a young adult, fascinated me with his use of light and shadow, with his amazing bold line work, but also with the way he gave birth to my favorite superhero in my adult years, which is Hellboy,” del Toro said during the recording of the Hellboy Director’s Cut commentary track.

When del Toro and Mignola finally met during the making of Hellboy, they bonded over a mutual love of folklore and pulp fiction, becoming fast friends and collaborators. 

2. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT FEATURED INTERVIEWS WITH HELLBOY WITNESSES.

In the world of the film, Hellboy is viewed as an urban legend and tabloid story, not unlike Bigfoot. The film’s opening credits underline this with blurry photos, grainy videos, and newspaper headlines meant to depict widespread eyewitness accounts of the creature. Agent Myers (Rupert Evans) further emphasizes this point when he exclaims “He’s real!” upon meeting Hellboy for the first time. 

According to del Toro, this idea was initially supposed to play out in a much more overt way through the film’s screenplay. In early drafts, parts of the film’s story were told through eyewitness interviews with characters claiming to have seen Hellboy.

“So people would be saying ‘I saw Hellboy over here. I saw him jump,’ and a kid saying, ‘I saw him on the rooftop.’ Now everybody does it, but back then it was 1997, '98, and I thought that was a great idea,” del Toro said. “That was the first thing we cut out of the shooting schedule because [the studio executives] didn’t understand it.”

3. IT COULD HAVE BEEN MADE MUCH SOONER.

Though Hellboy’s live-action debut occurred relatively early in the 21st century’s superhero movie boom, he could have been more of a comic book trailblazer than he turned out to be. According to del Toro, if it weren't for reluctant studio executives, the film could have come out as early as 1998, making it a contemporary of Blade rather than Spider-Man 2.

“The one thing that particularly infuriates me is that this movie could have been made in 1998,” del Toro said, noting that the film would have then pre-dated X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and even The Matrix (1999). At the time, though, many studio executives considered the comic book movie label “almost an insult,” and so Hellboy kept getting pushed back. In between the time it could have been made and the time it was actually released, del Toro made his comic book movie debut with another dark superhero film, Blade II, in 2002.

4. DEL TORO WROTE HIS OWN CHARACTER BIOGRAPHIES.

By the time Hellboy hit theaters, creator Mike Mignola had already been building his own mythology and supporting cast around the character for a full decade. While the film is a loose adaptation of the first major story arc of the comic, “Seed of Destruction,” del Toro couldn’t help adding his own touches to everyone’s backstory. Even before he began work on the script, del Toro wrote out detailed character biographies for each major player in the Hellboy story, which were then included on the eventual Director’s Cut DVD release.

A particularly amusing example from these backstories: The fictionalized version of historical figure Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) is said to have disliked “greasy food,” and while he really did die in 1916, he was resurrected in 1936 when Nazi occultists mixed his stolen ashes with the blood of the innocent.

5. HE ALSO ADDED THE LOVE STORY.

Long before his fantasy romance The Shape of Water earned him two Academy Awards, del Toro was imagining tales of unusual creatures falling in love with human women, and Hellboy was one of them. The romance between the title character (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) didn’t exist in Mignola’s original comics, where Sherman’s stronger connection was (ironically, given The Shape of Water’s subject matter) with the aquatic creature Abe Sapien (who is played by The Shape of Water's Amphibian Man, Doug Jones). Latching onto a particular moment in the comics in which Hellboy is enraged by the thought of Liz’s death, del Toro envisioned a story in which his demonic hero could fall in love with a pyrokinetic woman, and was particularly enticed by the image of that woman engulfed in flames kissing a fireproof creature. That particular storytelling decision made del Toro’s Hellboy significantly different from Mignola’s, who modeled the character after his father, but the creator ultimately allowed the departure in the final film.

6. RASPUTIN WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO LOSE HIS EYES.

In several sequences throughout the film, the character of Rasputin wears a pair of small sunglasses, even in scenes set at night. This was not done simply to make him look cooler (del Toro recalls comparisons made to The Matrix), but because del Toro originally planned to take away the character’s eyes. In the film’s opening sequence, Rasputin is sucked into the very portal that baby Hellboy is drawn out of, causing him to vanish from Earth for decades until he’s resurrected in the present day. Del Toro wanted the portal to create a “cosmic eye-gouging” effect that would rip the character’s eyes out of his head, but it simply didn’t work in a PG-13 film.

“I thought the eye-gouging, the cosmic eye-gouging, was not graphic enough for people to get the point,” del Toro said.

So, the shot of Rasputin losing his eyes was cut from the theatrical release, but restored for the director’s cut, along with a deleted scene in which the character is given a set of glass eyes.

7. LABYRINTHS ARE A RECURRING THEME IN THE FILM.

Del Toro is a director known for his keen attention to detail. As a result, various recurring visual themes appear in all of his films. For Hellboy, he focused on the idea that “a man is made a man by the choices he makes,” and while the film’s story conveys that as Hellboy must choose between the ideologies of Rasputin and Professor Broom, he also sought to convey it through visual metaphor. To do this, del Toro settled on the recurring motif of the labyrinth. It first appears as part of the opening credits sequence, when the entire logo becomes a kind of maze, then reappears as Ilsa (Bridget Hodson) and Kroenen (Ladislav Beran) weave through mountainous terrain to find Rasputin’s resurrection site. To bookend the metaphor, Rasputin’s mausoleum in Moscow also functions as a kind of labyrinth. Even the metal gates leading to the BPRD’s headquarters resemble the lines of a maze.

8. ONE SCENE WAS ACCIDENTALLY DELETED BY SEVERAL PROJECTIONISTS.

While several scenes from del Toro’s Director’s Cut were left out of the theatrical release, even the version of Hellboy shown in theaters wasn’t always complete. As del Toro later recalled, some “careless” projectionists in “dozens” of theaters accidentally removed one key sequence from the film’s final act as they were assembling the reels. At the end of the scene in which Liz activates her fire powers to burn the Sammael creatures away, a rock flies directly at the camera lens, creating a brief blackout. That scene is supposed to be followed by a shot of an unconscious Myers waking up on the ground to find Ilsa and Rasputin standing over him. The blackout confused some projectionists into skipping over the scene of Myers waking up, so some theatrical audiences were taken directly to the scene that followed, in which Myers has already been captured and chained up. According to del Toro, he set up an email contact form for moviegoers to report this misstep and got numerous replies, though the studio was not able to correct all of the errors.

9. IT FEATURES MANY FREQUENT DEL TORO COLLABORATORS.

Beginning with Cronos (1993), del Toro has built a large and diverse company of frequent collaborators, many of whom continue to work with him to this day. Several of these collaborators contributed to Hellboy, both in front of and behind the camera, including actors Ron Perlman (Cronos, Pacific Rim, Blade II) and Doug Jones (Mimic, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, and more), composer Marco Beltrami (Mimic, Blade II), and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and more).

10. IT SUFFERED BACKLASH BECAUSE THE WORD “HELL” IS IN THE TITLE.

During the Director’s Cut commentary for Hellboy, del Toro praised the film’s marketing team for finding ways to sell the film to the public, noting that it wasn’t always easy to attract audiences to a film called Hellboy. Some theaters refused to show the movie, while others retitled it Helloboy in an effort to calm potentially offended patrons. The problem was exacerbated by the presence of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which opened a few weeks earlier and remained a big box office draw during the Easter holiday.

“Especially on Easter, some theaters mysteriously dropped the movie when it was still making money,” del Toro recalled.

11. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE FIRST FILM IN A TRILOGY.

Hellboy opened on April 2, 2004 to strong reviews and a box office return good enough to merit a sequel. Just weeks after the first film hit theaters, Hellboy II was a go, with del Toro, Perlman, Blair, and Jones returning. With the knowledge that he would get to continue the story, del Toro envisioned a superhero fantasy trilogy, which moved closer to becoming a reality when Hellboy II: The Golden Army opened in 2008 to more critical acclaim. As time passed, though, a third film began to seem increasingly unlikely, with Perlman in particular noting that the epic scope of del Toro’s plans could be too taxing on the budget as well as Perlman’s own physical health. After years of holding out hope that the trilogy could be completed, del Toro finally announced in 2017 that all plans for Hellboy 3 had been scrapped.

12. BUT A REBOOT IS IN THE WORKS.

Del Toro might not get to finish his version of the Hellboy story, but that doesn’t mean Big Red won’t hit the big screen again. In May 2017, just months after del Toro announced an end to his version of the tale, Mignola revealed that the character would be rebooted as part of a new film franchise. Directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent) and starring David Harbour (Stranger Things) in the title role, the new Hellboy film is set to hit theaters on January 11, 2019.

Additional Sources:
Hellboy: The Director’s Cut special features (2004)
Guillermo del Toro: Cabinet of Curiosities (2013)

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