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Spider-Man: Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Cult-spotting, a branch of the old science of trend-spotting, became a national sport in the days of the old American Mercury, when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan first made fashionable the cultivation of trivia. Mencken and Nathan probably invented Pop as well, but since people had other things to think about in those days, no­body else bothered to record it. Today, the press having finally caught up with Mencken and Nathan, both trivia-cultivation and cult-spotting have risen again to public prominence. Their latest manifestation is pop cult spotting, which began in earnest in 1964 when Time mag­azine spotted the long-established Harvard Bogart Cult. Since then no trivia-cultist has been safe from the feature writer’s predatory eye.

Realizing that if Time was onto a trend the trend must be in its death-throes, other magazines rushed to spot newer pop-cults. The New Yorker came up with the Sunday-Afternoon-Reruns-of-the-Lone-Ranger-Cult. The Tribune noted that a small cordon of “stay-at-home intellectuals” was watching daytime television. The Times began doing textual analy­ses of homosexual publications. At this point the whole thing got out of hand and, in a desperate effort to stay a step ahead of the incognoscenti, the press turned to cult-creation. Defining pop as any object of which a normal aesthetic judgment would disap­prove, the press took to describ­ing the 18th-century painter Fragonard as the object of a pop-cult. And, “Everybody on the social scene is working on pop movies,” crowed Eugenia Shep­pard last October in the Tribune. By “everybody” she meant the girls in Andy Warhol’s “13 Most Beautiful Women” film.

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Master Stroke

But the Tribune made its master stroke of pop-cult crea­tion a few weeks later when it discovered the Golden Age of Comics and announced that “everybody” is buying old Bat­man and Superman magazines. Now the Paperbook Gallery has put a six-foot poster of the Phan­tom in its window, and the Old Comics Cult is, presumably, fact. Two college girls, passing the window last week, looked rever­ently at the poster. “That’s the ultimate in pop art,” one of them exclaimed, and with these words delivered fashion’s coup de grace upon the literature of her childhood.

Real pop or not, the Old Comic Books Cult has got to be a fake. Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Bat­man only if you continually re­mind yourself that you liked him when you were 12. As for the new issues of Batman and Superman, they are thin even by comic book standards. Superman’s only concession to modernity has been his formation of a league of super-heroes, a dubious improvement at best, and he is still as addicted to time machines as he was in 1940. Batman has not even attempted to come up to date. He still travels by Batmobile and Batplane; where is his Batcopter? and why has no one thought to equip him with hali-toxic Batbreath? No, reading Batman, like listening to Lone Ranger re-runs, is merely a Proustian memory trick, a de­vice for creating a state of mind conducive to summoning up the childhood self. There is a real Comic Books Cult, but it has nothing to do with the old heroes, and it has claims on our attention other than those of nostalgia.

Three Rules

I realize that in making the above statement I risk casting my lot with Eugenia Sheppard and the Cult-Spotters Guild. Nonetheless it must be said, for the Marvel Comics Cult is, under the existing Rules of Pop-Cult Spotting, ripe for exposure. It conforms to the first rule of pop (see above) and also to rules two (“Your cult must replace a pre­vious, inferior cult”) and three (“No one else must have pub­licly spotted your cult”). Furthermore, it is a legitimate cult. College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics pro­fessor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them. Schoolgirls and housewives dream about the Marvel heroes. I myself was deeply in love with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the Real World.

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Stories Signed

The Marvel Comics Group has been in existence less than five years, and during that time their circulation has risen to about six million a year. As befits pop literature in a pop-mad world, the Marvel books are highly self-­conscious. Their covers announce adventures dedicated to “The New Breed of Comic Reader,” and two pages on the inside of each magazine are given over to advertisements for the Marvel fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society. All the stories are signed (“Earth-shaking Script by Stan Lee, Breath-taking Illustrations by Jack Kirby, Epoch-making delineation by Chick Stone”), and the heroes who range in style from tradi­tional action types like Captain America to tragic, ambiguous figures like the Hulk, seem continually bemused by the way in which their apparently normal lives keep melting into fantasy. “This is so stupid it could only happen in a comic book,” says the wise-cracking monster The Thing as he and his friend the Human Torch flee across a col­lapsing dam with a deadly iron ball in hot pursuit.

Recognizing that life has begun to imitate fantasy to such a de­gree that the public is most comfortable with fantasy which imitates life, the creators of Marvel comics have invented superheroes with discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions. Further, they have given the heroes a recognizable geography.

Real Rules 

Thus, a Marvel Comics reader can get the impression that costumed superheroes form a sizable voting block in New York City. In fact, one suspects that they are the real rulers of Manhattan. And they have the citizens quite bewildered.

A New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidently rip the dark scales from the powerful eyes of Cyclops, a benign super-mutant whose refractive lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed. And, last year, New Yorkers awoke to find that their city had been taken over by the under­sea legions of Namor, the ruler of the sub-continent Atlantis. Washington was afraid to bomb the invaders lest the bombs in­jure innocent citizens. “Wait ’til the Fantastic Four get here!” murmured a bystander as the submariners marched through Central Park. He was right: the Fantastic Four ultimately drove the undersea legions back into the Hudson.

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Local Landmarks 

There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel  Group, and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks. On Madison Avenue the Baxter Building (“New York’s most famous skyscraper”) houses the Fantastic Four and their various self-protective devices. Further down Madison Avenue is the flagpole from which Spiderman swung the day he lost his spider powers. Somewhere in the east 60s the townhouse of playboy industrialist  Tony Stark (alias Iron Man) is secret  headquarters for the Avengers, a group of traditional fighters for justice which includes the thundergod Thor. Thor in his human identity is the lame doctor Don Blake (whose cane turns into a magic hammer when he puts on his Thor costume) who works surgical miracles in an uptown hospital.

The newspaper run by J. Jonah Jamison, sworn enemy of costumed superheroes, is also in midtown. And, “on the outskirts of Greenwich Village” Dr. Strange, the most bizarre superhero of all, has his secret retreat. Strange is a master of oc­cult knowledge and often walks around in ectoplasmic form; his creators imply that he lives in the Village because no one there is likely to become alarmed at being jostled by a wraith.

Intellectual Elite

In other respects besides geography, the Marvel world  mirrors the real world. Occupationally, of course, it has a heavy concentration of scientists, but then, these characters are supposed to be members of an intellectual elite and one cannot blame comic book writers for idolizing physicists. Within this larger elite, however, there are subtle gradations. The aristocrats of the Marvel world are the Fantastic Four, four healthy, at­tractive, and socially prominent people headed by physicist Reed Richards (who is dull but very dependable and has interesting body-stretching powers) and his blonde debutante fiancee Sue Storm (invisibility powers). Sue’s outside interests are clothes, novel reading, and doing her nails. Her brother, Johnny Storm the Human Torch, races cars and seems to have a bit of a death wish, but otherwise we can take him for the Marvel prototype 0f a normal adolescent superhero. The Thing, otherwise Ben Grimm, is Reed’s old col­lege roommate. The cosmic rays which gave the F. F. their powers turned Ben into a monster, and he is a trifle bitter about the whole thing. Still, group loyalty usually prevails over his resentment, and on the whole the Fantastic Four are quite aggres­sively well-adjusted. Everybody looks up to them.

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Neurotic Superhero 

The most popular Marvel hero, however, is much lower on the social scale. He is the maladjusted adolescent Spiderman, the only overtly neurotic superhero I have ever come across. Spiderman has a terrible identity problem, a marked inferiority complex, and a fear of women. He is anti-social, castration­-ridden, racked with Oedipal guilt, and accident-prone.

Spiderman began life as Peter Parker, a brilliant science student at a Queens high school who lived with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a Forest Hills split-level. He had no friends and was plagued by a dominating mother figure. Then he got bitten by a radioactive spider and took on the spider’s climbing, jump­ing, and web-shooting powers. Being a child of the television age, he immediately went on the “Ed Sullivan Show” (for which he received a check which, having no Spiderman identification, he was unable to cash). On his way out of the studio he saw a burglar escaping but, having decided to use his power only for his own benefit, refused to capture him. When he went home, Spidey found his uncle murdered by the same burglar. So, in a fumbling attempt to expiate his guilt, Spiderman decided to devote his talents to public service.

Cocky Manner

Ill luck has pursued him ever since. His shyness led him to adopt a cocky manner which so alienated the other superheroes that none of them will have any­thing to do with him. He is always having trouble maintain­ing his secret identity. And his powers are so closely allied to his highly problematic virility that they often seem to be on the verge of deserting him. His castration complex is constantly tripping him up. Once, while on the trail of a gang, he was trapped by the sinister villainess Princess Python. “What am I going to do?” he murmured desperately as she caressed his neck. “I can’t hit a girl.” Her presence had evaporated his web­shooting apparatus.

Another time, while standing on a roof surrounded on all sides by phallic-looking skyscraper towers, he began thinking about his Uncle Ben and became so consumed with guilt that he lost his spider-powers entirely. As he crawled home, thinking that now he could devote himself entirely to his Aunt May (toward whom guilt has made him more sub­missive than ever), he received word that Aunt May had been kidnapped by the evil Doctor Octopus. Eventually the need to act brought back his powers, for Spiderman is nothing if not a functioning neurotic.

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Needed Care

Spiderman’s most significant adventure took place when J. Jonah Jamison began writing articles about the hero’s mental instability. A psychiatrist had told Jamison that Spidey needed immediate psychiatric care, and Spiderman became so worried by this that he went to the doctor for help. The psychiatrist was finally unmasked as the villain Mysterio, who had been trying to flip Spidey out by pasting his office furniture onto the ceiling and convincing the tormented superhero that he was hallucinating. So Spiderman escaped with his interior defenses intact (a psychiatrist can be the functioning neurotic’s greatest enemy after all) only to fall, in the next issue, into the arms of a robot controlled by J. Jonah.

Spiderman, unlike other superheroes, has never yet saved the human race from annihilation. His battles are unfailingly personal, hand-to-hand combats between a young man of precarious courage and the powerful social forces which threaten to destroy his hard-won security. He has no reassuring sense of fighting for a noble purpose, nor has he any outside support. Even the public which cries up his victories invariably deserts him in the clinches. Spiderman is, God save us, an absurd hero, fighting with purely defensive weapons against foes he cannot understand. And, in last month’s issue, he was finally sabotaged at home: Aunt May burned his Spiderman costume so that he is now unable to venture out of doors.

How can a character as hope­lessly healthy as Superman com­pete with this living symbol of the modern dilemma, this neu­rotic’s neurotic, Spiderman, the super-anti-hero of our time.

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King Kirby Brings Comics’ Unsung Hero to the Stage

Survey the pop-culture universe, and it’s clear that a significant chunk of it originated in the mind of comic-book artist Jack Kirby. Not only did he co-create most of the foundation of the Marvel Universe (and a significant chunk of DC Comics’ as well), but his concepts and designs have influenced countless artists and filmmakers. And yet, despite being one of comics’ most important pioneers, in his lifetime Kirby failed to achieve the fame and financial rewards enjoyed by his frequent collaborator, Stan Lee. Now, comic book writer Fred Van Lente and award-winning playwright Crystal Skillman are debuting King Kirby, a play about his life, at the Brick Theater’s Comic Book Theater Festival.

First off, could you describe Jack Kirby’s importance to comics, and to the culture at large?

FVL: We like to call Kirby “the most famous artist you never heard of,” particularly for non-comics readers. He co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men. He was pivotal in the creation of romance comics. He did some of the best science-fiction comics in the ’70s; he was one of the first to do independent comics in the ’80s. The reason the San Diego Comic-Con is in San Diego is that it was close enough to his house so he could come. I could go on, but why bother?

CS: I knew him more from The New Gods [a sci-fi title Kirby created for DC Comics, which influenced Star Wars, among many other things]. I could see the larger imprint that he had. So when Fred had an idea for a play of his life, I was really excited.

FVL: I had written a play around 2002, before I became a comics pro. When the Comic Book Theater Festival started up, Crystal suggested I dust it off, and she did an incredible job rewriting it and reshaping the material.

What is it about Jack Kirby’s life that makes good drama?

CS: Comics didn’t really exist before these guys. People were creating this world as they go. That’s always very exciting for an audience, because they’re not being dropped into something they can’t understand. These are guys who need work, and this is their skill. People can relate to that.

I think it’s really cool that there are these big moments — going to war, serving under Patton and using his drawing skills to make maps — but there are these great little moments, too. We’re very lucky that there are so many interviews with him, and he was so very vocal throughout his life. He’s given us these little glimpses that he regrets certain moments. He’s a really compelling character, because he admitted some failings, and fought for the things he believed in.

FVL: It’s a grand tragedy in almost a Shakespearean way. I don’t think anyone is interested in another “dreamy artist battles the cruel, harsh world of the marketplace” story. These are fallible people. And many of the reasons why no one knows who Kirby is outside of comics — the blame can be rested very much on Kirby’s shoulders. I’m heartened that all the people who’ve read the play are pleased at how evenhanded it is. It’s as much a man versus himself story as it is a man versus Stan Lee story.

How are you showcasing Kirby’s art in the production?

FVL: Our lead, Steven Rattazzi [the voice of Dr. Orpheus on The Venture Bros.], studied animation when he was younger, and he’s going to draw onstage. So we’ll have Steven’s live drawings in addition to the actual Kirby artwork. Obviously we don’t expect an actor to be able to mimic Kirby’s drawing style.

CS: Drawing is an important action of the play, and the way it’s coming to life will be very exciting. John Hurley [who also directed Action Philosophers, a play Skillman adapted from one of Van Lente’s comics] is a very visual director, but he also keeps things grounded and moving. We’re moving very quickly through the play and his life, but they’re such dynamic moments that sometimes they imitate the genre he’s working on at the time.

FVL: Part of the conceit of the play is that since Kirby’s art is so frenetic and action-packed, the show is very frenetic and packed with detail — hopefully in a way that the audience finds super fun and simple to follow.

You’re also doing a Kickstarter for the production. Has that changed its ambition or scope?

FVL: Not really. The Kickstarter has allowed us to get the best people and get the best actors, and have the freedom to do the best possible production we could. The other great thing is that the Kickstarter campaign also serves as a marketing campaign. It’s a way to get the word out.

CS: It really allows these projects to live and breathe, and get to the audience. What’s exciting is proving the need for something. It’s very moving, because people have been sharing it everywhere and saying, “Help this. Help this come to life.” That’s a really gorgeous thing.

What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing King Kirby?

FVL: I hope people get a better understanding of where their popular culture comes from, and what happens to the people who produce it. Too often the assumption is just this stuff is cranked out at some corporate machine. But human beings make this stuff, and they have living, breathing stories, and this is one of the more important ones.

CS: What I love about Jack’s life is that his drawings speak for him. They are his words. I think that’s very inspiring. That has value in itself, even though maybe everything didn’t turn out exactly the way he was hoping. The effect that he’s had, and the little vibrations that keep growing among other artists that he’s inspired, make the life lived have value.


King Kirby opens June 20 at the Brick Theater (579 Metropolitan Avenue) in Brooklyn. Tickets here.

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HEAT IT UP

To pronounce Eddie Palmieri salsa’s greatest pianist sounds almost confining. His thundering chords, inventive claves, and cosmic harmonies suggest the kind of effects artist Jack Kirby might have achieved if he’d taken up the piano rather than the pencil. At 76, Palmieri remains a keyboard Galactus, a perfectionist with entire worlds at his fingertips. And though his recordings have become sporadic compared to the masterpieces he annually dropped on the Fania label during the late ’60 and early ’70s, his subsequent rearrangements of such classic tracks as “La Libertad Logica,” “Pa’ La Ocha Tambo,” and “Azucar Pa’ Ti” outdo the originals. Greek-born singer-composer Magda Giannikou’s Banda Magda open this Celebrate Brooklyn! concert with a Pink Martini–esque blend of samba, jazz manouche, cumbia, tango, and other styles sung in several different languages.

Sat., Aug. 3, 7:30 p.m., 2013

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2008’s Best Comics, Clip Art, and Pedophilia

Words and pictures have been eternally entwined: The ancient Egyptians combined hieroglyphs and portraits in The Book of the Dead; Japanese scholars mixed haikus with nature scenes in elegant tomes of woodblock prints; Gustav Doré’s 19th-century illuminations of iconic literature from the Bible to Don Quixote are perennially in print. The illustrated book remains one of life’s most visceral pleasures, and 2008 offered a cornucopia rich with words and images.

Venerable art-book publisher Abrams has given Jack Kirby (1917-94) the full-dress treatment in Kirby: King of Comics (224 pp., $40). Through reproductions of penciled roughs and colorful covers of titles from Young Love to the Fantastic Four, author Mark Evanier demonstrates how Kirby’s graphic innovations moved the art form past the repetitive pacing of newspaper strips and into the dynamism of self-contained comic-book stories.

Decades later, the costumed vigilantes and cold-war gods of Watchmen (1986) upended the superheroic visions of pioneers like Kirby. In Watching the Watchmen (Titan Books, 272 pp., $39.95), artist Dave Gibbons turns author to explicate the classic nine-panel grid he employed for Alan Moore’s multivalent script, juxtaposing his original chiaroscuro thumbnail sketches with his final, visually interlocked pages. An essay by colorist John Higgins on the series’ moodily sophisticated palette provides further insight into arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time.

Dan Walsh created the Internet sensation Garfield Minus Garfield (Ballantine, 128 pp., $12) by simply erasing the mega-star cat (and his cynical thought balloons) from daily strips. This collection captures the now-catless loser, Jon Arbuckle, declaiming to four-color voids with absurd pathos—”No hug?”—or pathetic enthusiasm—”I’m going on an imaginary date tonight!” Theo Ellsworth treads the opposite path with the horror vacui panels of Capacity (Secret Acres, 336 pp., $15), taking the reader on a surreal journey through exquisitely cross-hatched forests, cities, and caverns, where the beasts populating dreams become skittish at the scent of the dreamers. Rory Hayes (1949-83) delved even more deeply into the id, and never returned: Where Demented Wented (Fantagraphics, 144 pp., $22.99) surveys this underground primitive’s drug-fueled ink hallucinations of menaced teddy bears, slavering ghouls, and sexual cannibalism, which R. Crumb championed as “completely, perfectly blunt.”

Paul Pope displays a more graceful style in a lavish compilation of his ’90s series Heavy Liquid (Vertigo, 256 pp., $39.99). Set in a dystopic near-future, this graphic novel launches its stylish East Village hero on an international quest for a mysterious substance that morphs from visionary drug to deadly explosive to sensuous art material. But if busty cheerleaders stripping for an “Acid Orgy” or blonde ingénues menaced by opium lords are more your poison, the vibrant paperback covers that Stephen J. Gertz has reproduced in Dope Menace (Feral House, 220 pp., $24.95) should turn the trick. And possibly even trippier are the 1960s Japanese Batman comics collected by Chip Kidd in Bat-Manga! (Pantheon, 352 pp., $29.95). Photographer Geoff Spear has lovingly captured every detail of pages that were poorly printed in purple ink and have long since yellowed and decayed, lending the whirling geometries of manga master Jiro Kuwata’s ersatz Dynamic Duo a bathetic beauty.

Barry Feinstein and Bob Dylan collaborated on a very different ’60s treasure: Published this year for the first time, Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric (Simon and Schuster, 142 pp., $30) chronicles the decay of Tinseltown’s studio system through Feinstein’s black-and-white photos and Dylan’s poetry. Included are shots of Marilyn Monroe’s prescription pills, a wax effigy of Clark Gable, and a spread of the tumbled-down “Hollywood” sign next to the verse “off again/away away/go right thru it/make room for the others/comin to it.”

Then we have the sad and convoluted tale of Dwaine Tinsley, creator of Hustler magazine’s Chester the Molester. Did art imitate life when the cartoonist’s daughter accused him of sexual abuse, or was it all part of ’80s “recovered memory” hysteria? Lawyer and comics aficionado Bob Levin lays down a brief in Most Outrageous (Fantagraphics, 204 pp., $19.99), which leaves the reader reeling as the criminal-justice system struggles with crimes against trust and truth.

Weltschmerz runs freely through Jason Lutes’s Berlin: City of Smoke (Drawn and Quarterly, 216 pp., $19.95), as Communists and National Socialists slug it out on the streets and the demimonde parties hard in Weimar Berlin. We know history will send the city to hell, but Lutes’s second of three planned graphic novels gives us characters to care about presented in panels drawn with Bauhaus clarity. In Nat Turner (Abrams, 208 pp., $12.95), Kyle Baker focuses on a slice of history closer to home: the bloody rebellion led by the Virginia slave in 1831. Not since the heyday of Mad magazine’s Jack Davis has a comic artist exaggerated the human figure with such beautiful brinksmanship. Baker’s propulsive storytelling leads this recounting of the brutal uprising into a state of visual grace.

I Live Here (Pantheon, 320 pp., $29.95) details war in Chechnya, government oppression in Burma, disappearances in Juárez, and Malawi’s AIDS crisis. This elaborately designed anthology is pegged to the journals of actor Mia Kirshner, who traveled around the globe to chronicle the abused and displaced; she then joined with numerous writers, painters, designers, cartoonists, and some of the victims themselves to create this poignant compendium. In A People’s History of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, 320 pp., $30), artist Mike Konopacki has adapted a chapter from Howard Zinn’s populist blockbuster into comics, intercut with documentary photos. Starting with Zinn’s reasoned prologue about our current wars—”We are committing terrorism in order to ‘send a message’ to terrorists”—the book traces the bloody arc of empire through massacres, labor strife, and numerous hot and cold wars, before concluding with an epilogue entitled “The Possibility of Hope.”

And just in time for Christmas comes a collected volume of Get Your War On (Soft Skull, 256 pp., $15.95), David Rees’s potty-mouthed clip-art comic, which simultaneously nails the nation’s anger at its nihilistic enemies and its frustration with incompetent leadership. A December 12, 2001, panel reads: “Will you fucking hurry up and kill Osama bin Laden for fuck’s sake? Jesus Fucking Christ, how can I put this—YOU’VE BEEN BOMBING FOR TWO FUCKING MONTHS! WHAT THE FUCK SIZE BOMBS DO YOU NEED?”

Completely, perfectly blunt, indeed.

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Sugar and Vice

According to his bio from “Little Boy,” the 2005 breakout exhibition of young Japanese artists, Mr. (né Masakatsu Iwamoto) is a “genuine ‘lolicom’ (Japanese shorthand for ‘Lolita complex,’ and those possessing it).” Hence, the saucer-eyed nymphets bounding across the 24-foot-wide canvas Ah, Akihabara (2007). In bonnets, waitress uniforms, knee socks, and witch’s regalia, these gamines cavort through Tokyo’s bustling anime- and manga-obsessed otaku district. Should the occasional panty- exposing tumble feel more prurient than it does here? If not, a series of smaller, vertical paintings in which cartoonish lasses lift their tops, preen in French-maid outfits, or are simply nude and framed by hairless thighs and scrotum, fit the bill, even while Mr.’s spermatozoa-like signature implies a masturbatory distance from his fantasy objects. Elsewhere, he ventures directly into the mind of a Humbert Humbertian dream-—Strawberry Voice is a massive sculpture of a disembodied head with pontoon-size red pigtails and an eye propped open like a hatch, exposing a dollhouse interior of pink-patterned fabrics and plush toys. Mr.’s pop-art colors, sleek finishes, and witty, manga-inspired compositions coolly complement such fanboy fevers.

Neo Rauch
It’s fascinating to see these paintings in a setting where Rauch’s myriad influences can be studied up close: The figures and thrusting, ivy-covered wall of 2007’s Waiting for the Barbarians echo the hikers and rich, contrasting landscape in Balthus’s The Mountain (1936), which is directly downstairs in the Met’s permanent collection. Rauch’s characters are dream folk, one with rubbery, cartoon hands, others melding into each other like freak-show twins. These images move beyond stock surrealism, with slabs and washes of color that cause the backgrounds to oscillate between realism—or, considering Rauch’s East German youth, socialist realism—and vibrant abstraction. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710. Through September 23

Erick Swenson
What manner of fish lies here, dead and decaying? All that remains is a tooth-studded jaw attached to a gelatinous slab of thick, white skin, which sprawls like a discarded overcoat across jagged rhombuses of breaking ice. The guts are gone—a fishermen’s catch? A polar bear’s meal? Or a victim of unknown forces originating at the other end of the world? This huge resin sculpture covers the gallery’s entire floor, and its mix of desiccated, bleached curves against rich blue geometries of cracking ice achieves a desolate beauty. James Cohan, 533 W 26th, 212-714-9500. Through June 30.

Zoe Strauss
Whether photographing a bullet-pocked washing machine or a Philadelphia crack addict firing up, Strauss is a born composer. She crops a jowly, frowning woman at the forehead, mirroring her stained T-shirt, which sports a teddy bear cut off at the chin; colorful mattresses propped against a barbed-wire-topped fence anchor an armada of pastel balloons. Strauss conveys more sympathy than schadenfreude in these images of down-and-outers, and her eye for the absurd urban moment (“Victory Annex” spelled out in large, uneven letters across a dilapidated building) brings genuine pathos to harsh stretches of asphalt. Silverstein, 535 W 24th, 212-627-3930. Through June 23.

Jack Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’
Even if you’ve never read a comic book, you can’t escape this four-color Wagnerian’s gravitational pull. With writer Stan Lee, Kirby gave us the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and other eternal denizens of the multiplex and syndicated TV. In 1970, at age 53, he began writing, drawing, and editing a group of interlinked series, which have been gathered together in an omnibus edition. The Forever People, Mr Miracle–Escape Artist, and—”King” Kirby never lacked ambition—The New Gods feature kinetic page layouts in which dynamically foreshortened antagonists hurl each other across galaxies, networks of steel divide the panels, Day-Glo pinks enliven hippie-inspired costumes, and coarse-screened collages chart multidimensional byways. Although the plots offer some pulp clichés—no matter how cataclysmic the day’s events, we know “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen,” will somehow pull through—this sprawling epic brims with prescient references to cloning and personal computers, plus a suicide bomber chillingly named “Justifier.” Humanity hangs forever in the balance, but Kirby’s gangly optimism provides the only god we truly need—unfettered imagination. DC Comics, 396 pp., $49.99.<

Assume Vivid Astro Focus
Upon entering this multimedia extravaganza, don the 3-D glasses and wander amid the objects—chairs, tools, and ladders, among others—that this Brazilian artist has wallpapered with sheets of blue and red type laid out like Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE design. Words such as SICK, BOMB, GRIM, HELL, HATE, SHIT, and that new four-letter fave, BUSH, seem to jut out at you. Next, gaze through wig-lined portholes at a strobing disco dystopia of writhing revelers, fluorescent outlines, and sirens. And still the treats keep coming—follow the booming music through a trapdoor and down the steps into a black tunnel ribbed with flashing neon synchronized to a rollicking synth track. The colors and throbbing beat wash over you; get up close and it seems to hurl past. For just a moment you might feel like Jack Kirby’s hallucinogenic Silver Surfer. John Connelly, 625 W 27th, 212-337-9563. Through June 30.

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Remembering the Halcyon Days of Youth

When I was a kid, Marvel and DC Comics were bastions of dreams. Not only were the superheroes amazing and like friends, so were the people who made the comics. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were larger than life, and when they’d write something in the letter columns of the comics, I’d hang on every word. Later, I read that Lee and Kirby didn’t like each other much, and that Kirby didn’t get all the money he deserved from Lee and Marvel. Marvel changed the world of superheroes, but it didn’t transform one eternal maxim: money changes everything.

Still, the beauty of comic books is the same beauty found within all books. They may not be considered literary, but they do stoke the fires of your imagination. They let you dream the good dreams of power and ethics (and occasionally, the bad dream of vengeance) even as they offer over-the-top drama and adventure. If you love the world of comic books or simply want to remember the halcyon days of youth when comics made you believe you could be a superhero in real life, MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE is the game for you.

And if you’re still a teen, I envy you. While you still love to read graphic novels featuring Marvel superheroes, Activision lets you play as Marvel’s greatest characters in 3D in a story-rich, mission-filled game that reminds me of the roller coaster ride featured in the best episodes of TV’s 24. Here, Dr. Doom and his super-villain minions have united to wreak havoc upon everyone from Thor to Spider-Man—and the universe beyond. You and about 20 Marvel superheroes have got to stop this axis of evil. While it’s not easy, you’ll have a hoot of a time trying to thwart them in this game that will engage you for about 30-40 hours.

While the Marvel Ultimate Alliance lets you play from a third person perspective in which you look down at the action, it still feels like you’re moving within the pages of a comic book. The writing is full of that signature Marvel macho humor and the usual world-ending gloom and doom. There are explosions everywhere you go, fiery, fireworks-like balls of who-knows-what wreaking havoc as you try to proceed. You’ll never die from getting hit by them or by the evil criminals like Loki and Mephisto who assault you. And sometimes, you’ll get to fly and attack from mid-air. But you will get knocked out, and your team of four superheroes will have to proceed without that character until, say, Thor, has recovered from his injuries. For those who like pop culture history, the makers have even woven Marvel trivia into the game. Answer them correctly and you’ll garner powers and experience for your character.

Plus, with each mission you complete, one of the heroes in your team of four will get some fantastic new superpower. You shouldn’t use these magical attacks with much regularity, however, or your superhero will get winded. After a few levels of play, you’ll get to customize your hero. And as you get deeper into the game, you’ll encounter everyone from blazing, skeletal Ghost Rider to introspective, cosmic warrior, the Silver Surfer. You’ll travel from universe to universe, too, from the majesty of Thor’s heavenly Asgard to the creepiness of Mephisto’s lair. I like Murder World the best, a creepy amusement park where evil lies around every corner. The game isn’t perfect, though. Until you master it, you’ll sometimes get lost. And you’ll occasionally be plagued with camera angle issues.

Activision has been fairly quiet this year when it comes to major releases. But with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, a game that will be released for the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii as well as for the current systems, they prove they’ve been a sleeping giant that’s now awakened. Heck, this game even beats the classic X-Men Legends, released a couple of years ago. And that’s saying something.

  • Check out reviews of all the latest and greatest games (updated every week), along with past faves in NYC Guide.
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    Superheroes and Friends Invade Gotham This Weekend

    In 1938, Superman burst into the popular imagination by effortlessly tossing an automobile at a group of terrified crooks. Fast-forward 70 years and comic books are only part of a globe-girdling pop culture that encompasses Spider-Man blockbusters, the Sci-Fi channel, toys, video games, and Japanese anime. All this and more hits Gotham this weekend: Along with vintage comics dealers, the New York Comic-Con hosts advance screenings of the Daniel Clowes–Terry Zwigoff film Art School Confidential and Marvel’s newly animated Ultimate Avengers, plus such panel discussions as “The Future of the Graphic Novel” and a Sotheby’s-worthy exhibition of golden-age comics (featuring Superman’s debut, Action 1). Dozens of special guests include Joe Simon (who, with partner Jack Kirby, created many comic icons like Captain America and the Young Romance series); Neal Adams, the revered Batman limner and untiring champion of artists’ rights in an industry notorious for screwing talent out of royalties; writer Brian Azzarello, whose 100 Bullets is a masterpiece of snappy nihilism; Mari Iijima, the Japanese pop singer known to millions worldwide as Lynn Minmay of the anime hit Macross; and media critic Douglas Rushkoff. This extravaganza should prove worthy of the Man of Steel’s history and the cutting-edge exploits of his myriad progeny.

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    Four Shame! New Marvel Movie All Doom and Gloom

    Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four as an editorial imperative: Invent a superhero group to cash in on the popularity of DC Comics’
    Justice League of America. In transporting Lee and Kirby’s epochal creation to the screen, director Tim Story and writers Michael France and Mark Frost have much the same task—in the wake of the massively popular
    X-Men franchise, streamline 40 years of comic-book history into an easily marketable 105-minute film. But while Lee and Kirby reworked an old formula into something wholly new, Story’s superficial alterations only bring the picture in line with tired tent pole storytelling, forcing our heroes to fight off evil clichés when they should be fighting Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon).

    Lee and Kirby’s ultimate contribution to their art form was their unique blend of dynamic action and fallible human characters. Story’s
    Fantastic Four misses the mark on both counts. As in the Marvel comics, Reed (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue (Jessica Alba), Johnny (Chris Evans), and Ben (Michael Chiklis) are transformed by exposure to cosmic radiation. But the action sequences reek of drudgery rather than adventure, and with the exception of Chiklis’s remarkably soulful performance beneath 60 pounds of orange Thing makeup, all of the characters are flatter than their two-dimensional counterparts.

    Before the inevitable and surprisingly anticlimactic battle with Doom, we are treated to two extreme-sports demonstrations, several training montages, an ill-advised love triangle, and a scene where massive billboards for Burger King, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and SoBe dwarf our heroes. Fantastic four, indeed.

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    American Gods

    Alex Ross, one of America’s preeminent comic-book artists, recounts the genesis of his 1997 Uncle Sam comic. “[Writer] Steve Darnall and I both felt that our culture was at a crossroads of its own selfishness,” he says from his studio near Chicago. “The American spirit was at a very low ebb,” he adds, pointing to the profligate Clinton economic boom as “a blinding factor.”

    Asked to do a cover painting for this issue of the Voice — a riff on the finger-flipping patriot deemed too provocative for the hardcover edition of Uncle Sam — the chronically overscheduled Ross hesitates, then chuckles. “If you’d asked for anything else, I’d have had to say no. But I’ve wanted to get that one out there for a long time.”

    “Uncle Sam represents the government,” Ross says, “and our current government is giving us the finger. But you can turn that around and see the true spirit of the nation giving it back to a government that is telling its citizens, ‘We know what’s best — don’t question us.’ That finger is definitely a fuck-you back at this government.”

    He elaborates: “Everyone’s asking why are we in Iraq? We were sold a bill of goods. This is a show of strength to scare the rest of the world — go after the obvious bad guy. It’s like Batman going after the Penguin because he can’t find the real villain, the Joker. Batman would never do that just for show — that kind of thing only works for lone justice anyway, not with countries. [The administration] is feeding its ego by trying to send that kind of cowboy justice out into the world. You can’t take vigilante philosophy onto that kind of scale.”

    Alex Ross’s “Uncle Sam”: A surreal journey through the history of empire

    Uncle Sam sends the top-hatted patriot on a journey of wrenching revelation. Ross chillingly animates a lawn jockey, paints an unflinching, ghastly portrayal of a lynching, and uses the painfully clashing colors of azure sky against bloody corpses to highlight the cruelty of the Indian Removal Bill of 1832. Enraged at what has been wrought in his name, Sam grows to Brobdingnagian proportions and challenges his cynical contemporary doppelgänger to a fight, using federal buildings in Washington as a boxing ring — a wild invention that allows this synthesis of man and culture to regain his original ideals. Uncle Sam is a warning about the hubris of empire; if our society must now be seen through the scrim of 9-11, a citizen could do worse than give it a serious read.

    Ross painted the cover the next day, then left his home near Chicago to start a book tour promoting Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross (written and designed by Chip Kidd, just out in stores from Pantheon; see below for local events). In addition to taking the down-on-his-luck, red-white-and-blue icon on a chutes ‘n’ ladders ride through American history, Ross is most renowned for his hyper-realistic renderings of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and many more. Just as he scrupulously followed James Montgomery Flagg’s original 1917 design for Uncle Sam, Ross’s respect for the history, the “essential purity,” of the original comic-book superheroes borders on reverence.

    To fully appreciate Ross’s achievement, it’s necessary to look at the artists who came before him. Although their figures were often stiff or rubbery, the best of the early practitioners showed an intuitive grasp of the limitations of a medium that went through an elaborate, collaborative process before hitting the streets in wire-wrapped bundles. Even the most skilled draftsmen had to hand lithe pencil drawings over to an inker, who, while making the lines solid enough for reproduction, hopefully didn’t flatten the life out of them. Next came the colorist, who used a limited palette to fill in the outlines. Even if these artists meshed well to create dynamic, colorful pages, the whole shebang was then shipped off to the printers — inevitably a gang of thieves driven by economies of scale to shove anything legible out the door, color match and registration be damned.

    Ross’s new Justice League of America: reverence for eight decades of American idealism

    Comic books began as the scheme of an unemployed Bronx salesman wanting to keep huge, capital-intensive newspaper presses from sitting idle during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Ever since Superman burst upon the world in 1938, espousing faith in democracy, the triumph of justice over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for the common good, the comics have proved a keen expression of America’s garish, idealistic — and contradictory — soul. If the Man of Steel was a role model for millions of young fans, offering them refuge from an ever more threatening world, some grown-ups considered the cheap magazines a menace. In 1954 their most vociferous critic, a New York City psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, wrote that comic books were “not poetic, not literary, have no relation to any art, and have as little to do with the American people as alcohol, heroin, or marihuana, although many people take them, too.” (Is this a great country or what?)

    One of the originators of the art form, Jack Kirby, was born on the Lower East Side in 1917. Co-creator of Captain America, he depicted the flag-clad superhero busting one on Hitler’s chin almost a year before the U.S. entered World War II. The young artist believed “comics were a common form of art and strictly American.… America was the home of the common man, and show me the common man that can’t do a comic.” Alas, both Mythology and another new book, Arlen Schumer’s The Silver Age of Comic Book Art (Collector’s Press), contradict this appealing sentiment by proving just how uncommon great comic-book artists actually are.

    Though artistically and financially devastated by the good Dr. Wertham’s ’50s moral crusade, comic books were experiencing a renaissance by the early ’60s. Schumer, an illustrator, lecturer, and comics historian, points out that a handful of artists (including a stronger-than-ever Kirby) turned this bastard medium’s limitations into strengths through strong figure drawing (a skill long atrophying in American fine art), innovative compositions, and sophisticated graphics. Schumer captures the era with a tenfold enlargement of a tiny Carmine Infantino panel of the Flash sprinting out of a ranch house, a perfectly proportioned figure in a landscape; Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man slaloming between skyscrapers, his body torqued into beautiful arabesques; and Joe Kubert’s Sgt. Rock, carved out of deft brushstrokes that convey war-weariness and the burden of keeping his men alive. (This month sees the release of Kubert’s Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & A Hard Place, a half-century after he first brought the character to life. Kubert has illustrated Brian Azzarello’s compelling story with spare, scabrous depictions of the nihilism of war.)

    With dense, informative layouts Schumer shows how these artists helped define the decade. He relates Tom Wolfe’s description of LSD proselytizer Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.” Kubert evokes the My Lai massacre by having Sgt. Rock confront a soldier who has just murdered unarmed German civilians. By contrasting the noble, duty-bound Rock against the heavily armed soldier’s arrogant pose, the artist succinctly portrays the gulf between America’s motives in World War II and in Vietnam. Kirby thrusts the Fantastic Four into the “Negative Zone,” a universe of coarse black-and-white half-tone collages, where the colorful atomic mutants drift amid asteroids searching for a planet-size intelligence named Ego. “I began to throw my mind out in all different directions,” Kirby says in the book. In 1966 he upped the ante with Galactus, whom he called a “true god.… Everybody talks about God, but what does he look like?… I drew him large and awesome.” The humanist spark that drove all of Kirby’s work is echoed in Galactus’s own dialogue: “I perceive the glint of glory within the race of man!… It shall one day lift you beyond the stars or bury you within the ruins of your wars!” Kirby needed such vast themes to keep pace with the art he was splashing across the colorful two-page spreads opening many of his stories: Layered scenes of destruction, creation, and war, they verge on incoherence but are as controlled and improbably gorgeous as Jackson Pollock’s allover murals.

    It’s not known if Kirby was a fan of abstract expressionism, but any art form can be judged by who steals from it. If Roy Lichtenstein simply scaled-up and tweaked the compositions of Irv Novick’s original panels, Robert Rauschenberg dug deeper and found the vernacular beauty of crummy printing processes: What were his polka-dot bedsheet grounds but homages to the crude benday dots of the Sunday strips he collaged on top? Warhol painted Superman, but it’s his grim Marilyn icons and car crashes, with their flailing colors barely constrained by screen-printed black outlines, that owe their shocking beauty to the raw coloring and printing pioneered by the comics. According to writer Mark Evanier, Kirby claimed Lichtenstein once came around looking for a job. He didn’t get it, because “Jack seemed to think the guy’s work wasn’t very good, either then or when he started selling paintings for large sums.”

    Schumer closes Silver Age with the artist who pushed furthest beyond the limits: Neal Adams. Best known for rescuing Batman from the camp hell of ABC’s popular TV series by returning the Dark Knight to his somber, vigilante roots, Adams is, simply put, one of the greatest draftsmen this country has ever produced. “Neal Adams changed everything,” says Alex Ross in Mythology. “He defined what realistic, dynamic storytelling in comics would be for all time.”

    Not that Adams will own up to it. During a recent interview a deep, broad accent comes down the phone line as he recounts the tale of some Frenchmen visiting his studio: “Ahhh yez, America does zree forms of art — your musical comedy, jazz, and comic books.” Adams laughs, and says he replied: “It’s something you take into the bathroom, and if you take a nice long shit, you can finish a whole comic book.”

    Neal Adams’s Green Lantern traverses America’s racial, class, and political divides, circa 1972: “I had, I must say, some little, small thing to do with moving through the ’60s and discrimination in America.”

    If not false, his modesty is at least disingenuous; minutes later he speaks of putting his “heart and soul” into Green Lantern comics for $45 a page when he could have been making hundreds doing advertising layouts. In 1970, Adams and writer Denny O’Neil sent Green Lantern (a test pilot made nigh-on invincible through an alien power source) and a hippie Robin Hood named Green Arrow on a journey to discover America. Green Arrow teaches his straitlaced friend that the law is not always on the side of justice, as they bring down a cruel slumlord in one issue and defeat an army of goons protecting a greedy mine owner in the next.

    Adams displays his chops throughout the series in judiciously detailed drawings of trash-strewn tenements, stunningly natural figures, masterful foreshortening, and emotional portraits that, in another epoch, would’ve earned him a place at the Court of the Medici. In an iconic panel, Green Arrow stands before posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and decries their assassinations: “Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!” Three years later, John Dean told Richard Nixon there was “a cancer… close to the presidency,” as Tricky Dick came to personify everything Adams’s characters railed against. Adams created dramatic layouts — X-Men plunged diagonally down pages, entire sequential scenes played out within the silhouette of Batman’s cape — energizing stories that passed the ideals of superheroes on to a new generation. Even though these tales were “printed on toilet paper,” Adams recalls, “kids fucking loved them!” He sounds like a superhero himself when he emphatically adds, “I am for justice, I am for democracy, I am for helping the other guy. I am my brother’s keeper.”


    Chip Kidd, designer of Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross, has a deep appreciation for the period from the dawn of comics up through Adams. He compares the shortcomings of the earlier era to Maria Callas’s voice, which, while not technically pretty, has “some weird, secret ingredient that makes it really special.” But Mythology makes it clear that Ross’s smoothly modeled paintings could not have withstood the degradations of back-in-the-day printing; his art needs fine screens, glossy stock, and dead-eye registration to work its illusional magic. If superhuman beings zooming about in tights and flowing capes are, on the face of it, absurd, the verisimilitude of Ross’s portrayals stubbornly insists otherwise in the translucent shadow of Batman’s cape, the Sandman serrated by streetlights shining through venetian blinds, or the Flash, in perpetual motion, an indistinct scarlet blur.

    The critic Robert Hughes has noted that while America is ostensibly one of the most religious nations on earth, it has “produced very little in the way of original religious art.” In 1996, Ross, a minister’s son, took superheroes who’d been around for 60-odd years and (with writer Mark Waid) gave them the gravitas of religious myth. Their four-part series Kingdom Come envisions Armageddon: the original generation of superheroes squared off against their power-drunk offspring to decide humanity’s fate. Ross portrays Superman as paralyzed by the enormous responsibility of being the world’s greatest superpower; finally, though, he consults with the UN and goes to war (after painstakingly building a broad coalition).

    The world’s greatest superpower, staggered and confused: “Kingdom Come”

    Some of these apocalyptic battle scenes are reproduced in Mythology — fantastic beings blasting and slashing each other amid compositions that reveal their underlying structural grace after repeated viewings. Ross’s work gains power from the cumulative effect of painted panel piled upon painted panel. It isn’t a cinematic experience — though he has much more feeling for these characters than any mercenary director — but an unfurling frieze of fantasy made manifest. On a smaller scale, Ross excels at capturing emotion: Captain Marvel, driven mad by the malevolent Lex Luthor, decks Superman with a thunderbolt, then flashes a grin conveying lunacy and pitiless power. After a climax of near biblical destruction, “the gods work with mankind towards a common good.” In an age when America’s most implacable enemies (both at home and abroad) are besotted with religion, Kingdom Come feels eerily prescient.

    As with Adams’s work, it is the stories Ross chooses to illustrate that make his work important. Asked if he viewed the Uncle Sam comic as an act of patriotism, Ross replies that it’s “an act of humanitarianism.” (He knows whereof he speaks: Ross has donated more than $350,000 from the sale of his original art to such charities as UNICEF and the Reisenbach Charter School in Harlem.)

    Kidd supplies many close-ups of Ross sketches and paintings, giving an idea of why a Batman scene fetched $65,000 at Sotheby’s. Virtuoso pencil sketches, the result of long life-drawing sessions, and vivid gouaches fashioned from sure brushstrokes and airbrushed hazes make one realize that even modern reproduction techniques take their toll on original art. Still, Ross can be criticized when his photo references get in the way of his imagination — compared to a pastiched, flatly lit final version of Superman before Congress, a quick, preparatory ink sketch is more organic and convincing.

    Mythology closes with a bang. Co-written with Kidd, “The Trust” is an eight-page roller-coaster ride of terrific, economical storytelling and propulsive visuals. For the general reader, who knows little of Batman and Superman’s long, prickly history, the concise dialogue (kept to a minimum to free up the art) provides all needed backstory. Ross launches the Man of Steel through the air like a titanium missile, Batman trailing behind on the Batrope, the silken cord making graceful arcs and taut diagonals that seamlessly knit the action together; the backgrounds hurtle by. Colors are vibrant and expositional, subtly defining aspects of each character and scene. A work of art, “The Trust” ends too soon, but it ends right, a reminder that comic books, like baseball and rock ‘n’ roll, are one of America’s joyous gifts to the world, created for the young but with reverberations for the ages.


    Alex Ross and Chip Kidd appear at Barnes & Noble Union Square on November 20 at 7, and at Midtown Comics (200 West 40th Street) on November 21 at 5.


    Ross will appear at an exhibition of his original art at Illustration House (110 West 25th Street) on November 22 at 6 (a benefit for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art).


    A book party for Arlen Schumer’s Silver Age of Comic Book Art will be held on November 21 at 7 at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, at 34th Street.