People who know that I’m a film buff sometimes ask me, “What’s your favorite movie?” Which is, of course, an impossible question to answer. I love many movies for many reasons, and they’re not interchangeable. How does one compare a favorite horror film (Psycho) to a favorite comedy (Blazing Saddles), or the appeal of two markedly different fantasy films (say, The Princess Bride vs. Heavy Metal)? Do I love Die Hard more or less than Double Indemnity? Streets of Fire more or less than Enter the Dragon?
You see the problem.
One night I happened to be parked in front of the television watching yet another of my favorite films, John Frankenheimer’s brilliant crime drama, Ronin. It’s a great piece of entertainment, combining a twisty plot; crackling dialogue; understated performances by a fine cast (including Robert DeNiro’s last truly stellar acting job before he dove headlong into self-parody, apparently permanently); and one of cinema’s all-time great car chase sequences. (Although it has his signature style all over it, many people don’t realize that Ronin was scripted by David Mamet, using the pseudonym Richard Weisz.) It’s also that rare film in which Sean Bean appears but does not die, although he does get booted from the story a third of the way in.
As I was viewing Ronin for the umpteenth time, a thought flashed to mind: “Isn’t there a superhero named Ronin?” Another thought quickly followed the first: “Didn’t Frankenheimer also direct The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Iceman Cometh? Birdman and Iceman are superheroes, too.”
And that’s how Common Elements concepts are born.
Ronin the superhero — as distinct from Ronin the movie — has actually been embodied by several different characters in the Marvel Comics universe, including Clint Barton (the Avenger better known as Hawkeye) and Eric Brooks (better known as Blade, the vampire hunter). Shown here is the original Ronin, Maya Lopez, who herself is probably more familiar to comics readers under her subsequent costumed identity, Echo. Maya is both one of the more prominent Latina heroines in superhero comics, and one of the genre’s few deaf characters.
Iceman — a.k.a. Robert “Bobby” Drake — is one of the founding members of the X-Men, going all the way back to the debut of the franchise in 1963. Historically, Bobby was the youngest in the original lineup, and was often portrayed by Marvel writers as somewhat immature and impulsive. More recently, Iceman gained publicity for coming out as gay — a revelation questioned by some readers as a retcon, given that Bobby has been romantically involved with numerous female characters over the course of his X-career.
Birdman will be familiar to those of a certain age (ahem…) as star of the fondly remembered 1960s animated TV series, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio. Designed by legendary comics artist Alex Toth (also responsible for such characters as Space Ghost and the Herculoids), Birdman is actually Ray Randall, a normal guy who receives an array of superhuman abilities from the Egyptian sun god Ra. He can fly using the powerful wings that erupt from his back, and can also fire beams of solar energy from his hands. Because his gifts derive from the sun, Birdman frequently found himself in dilemmas where the lack of sunlight robbed him of his powers temporarily. He was accompanied on his adventures by a pet eagle named Avenger.
Younger readers know Birdman from his comedic retooling in the late 1990s. In the Cartoon Network series Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, the former superhero is presented as a rather dimwitted defense lawyer, whose client list includes a diverse collection of his fellow Hanna-Barbera characters. Avenger is nowhere to be found in this adaptation, likely due to embarrassment.
Today’s featured artwork — #123 in my Common Elements theme — springs from the potent pencil of veteran comics artist Val Semeiks. This marks Val’s third foray into the world of Common Elements. As is true of both of his previous efforts, this one rocks.
And that’s your Comic Art Friday.