Thursday, September 28, 2006
Apparently, this is "New Avengers: Disassembled" part 3 as the JLA-esque version of the Avengers is split down the middle because of the events of the Civil War crossover. Each issue focuses on a specific member of the team and this time out, we get Spider-Woman.
The first thing that caught my attention was in the little recap of what has already happened. It says, "After being called upon to hunt down heroes in defiance on the Registration Act, Captain America goes underground and begins to form a resistance movement." Now, does this mean that Captain America actually agrees with the Registration Act, but not with hunting down his fellow heroes? Because I thought he simply thought the whole thing was a dumb idea.
Also on that page, there's a little America-centric thinking when S.H.I.E.L.D., which I always thought was a division of the US government (because they sure as hell seem to answer to it) not "the world's peacekeeping taskforce." But, that could be some sort of strange technicality where they're a division of the US government, but have UN sanction or something. Although, a set-up like that firmly places this book in the realm of fiction in ways that superheroes never will.
Getting to the actual story . . . Spider-Woman, or Jessica Drew, is lying in bed having just awoken after a night of drinking cheap beer (the empty cans littered around her) in a dingy motel room. She's obviously distraught about recent events, okay.
She gets a visitor in the form of Nick Fury, the guy at S.H.I.E.L.D. she answers to (she also works for a terrorist organisation called Hyrda), and he's wondering which side of the conflict she's on. So she shoots him in the back with some sort of weird electro-shock power I didn't know she had. And we get a close-up of her ass.
But, Nick Fury isn't hurt because it's not Nick Fury! It's a robot version and Spider-Woman is a traitor to America! Enter armoured troops with guns and a cofusing panel layout that's meant to parallel the chaos of the scene but really just confuses the fuck out of me! What the fuck is going on?
Oh. She's been captured and is in a dark room, tied to a chair. She's the very first traitor in the very first superhero war. Wait. Even people in the MU are calling it a war? That seems premature somehow. I understand calling the story "Civil War," but having the characters call it that? We only see if as such because we exist outside of their little universe and see the entire picture. In our minds, all of the heroes are best good friends and this is, like, the most shocking thing ever. In their minds, they were allies in only the loosest sense and decided to kick the shit out of one another over a political disagreement.
There's some plot stuff. Blah blah blah traitor, blah blah blah double agent, blah blah blah parents were terrorists so you're a terrorist, blah blah blah you answered to Nick Fury but since he's not in charge here anymore we're going to lock you up.
And then, here is Iron Man to make sure Spider-Woman knows she's fucked. And to once again show that Iron Man is a total fucking dick. Because he is. Iron Man is a total fucking dick.
Just when Spider-Woman is at the end of her rope, ready to bitch Iron Man out, the lights go out and Hydra launches a fullscale assault on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to rescue Spider-Woman.
So. Say you're a big terrorist organisation and you have the ability to attack the main headquarters of the "world's peacekeeping taskforce" aka the guys trying to capture and kill you, wouldn't you do so for the reason of just killing them all rather than rescuing a person who may not even be loyal to you? Shit, they basically rush in, get her and then get off, leaving the helicarrier to crash into Rhode Island--except it doesn't. Why the fuck not? What kind of shitty, half-assed terrorist organisation doesn't make damn sure the flying military base they just crippled kills a shitload of innocent people and is destroyed? I call bullshit on Bendis. Especially since bigtime Hydra dude tells us later that this was a one-time only tactic. The message? Marvel's terrorists suck ass. And they're also Nazis (head S.H.I.L.D. lady says they are). And communists (one of them makes sure that Iron Man knows that this is all because of his "war profiteering"). Which makes sense, because Nazis and communists are the same thing.
Anyway, Spider-Woman is taken to Hydra Island or some other lame as fuck named place and is told they want her to replace the current leader of the group. See, it's like, a parallelism to the civil war going on with the heroes. War between heroes, war between terrorists. Except Spider-Woman makes a lame speech and blows the fuck out of the island.
The last page has her finding Captain America's resistance group and asking the join. My only thought is, Captain America and his group have shitty security as she basically just walks into their little warehouse and they're all just standing around. A military guy like Captain America would surely have some sort of perimeter guard(s) to make sure that a potential threat (like Spider-Woman, who may or may not be a terrorist, government agent or superhero) doesn't just walk right in. Oh, and then she cries because she has nowhere else to go. Next issue, the Sentry is focused on and I wish I had that issue instead of this one.
On the whole, it actually wasn't a bad read . . . as long as you check your brain at the door, which I imagine was the intent. I know it's strange to quibble about "realism" in a book involving a lady who can stick to walls and shoot electricity out of her hands, but that's just part of the internal logic of the genre. Maybe dumb, highly ineffective terrorists are too. Actually, of course they are! Nice job, Bendis!
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Civil War is supposed to be a politically relevant story. This has been said by pretty much everyone involved. It’s all about America’s problems balancing personal liberties with national security. The superpowered people living in the Marvel Universe’s America are given a choice: register with the government, give up being a hero, or go to jail. Not exactly a new idea and not even that relevant, I would argue. In the most abstract of interpretations, yes, it does reflect the current political situation in America, but not in any broad sense. Now, if superpeople were being rounded up, declared non-persons and held for an indeterminate amount of time, tortured and never released, you might have some relevancy.
Or, there’s the simple relevancy that most have missed (and maybe someone else has caught it, but I haven’t see that, so apologies if you said this first). It has been alluded to in a few places, but never explicitly stated.
When I first heard of Civil War, my main problem with it was the fact that because of this piece of legislation, fellow heroes and friends would not just be on opposite sides of a political issue, but would also being beating the shit out of one another over it. Surely, there would be at least one character on the pro-registration side who would say that while they agree with the legislation, there was no way they would hunt down their fellow heroes. You know, a voice of moderation and reason.
No such voice appeared, except until possibly after the recent death of Goliath. Before that, it was simply a jump from disagreeing over a political issue to beating the shit out of one another. And that is where Civil War reflects the current political climate of America. No one discusses politics in a reasonable and moderate fashion. It is simply “You disagree with me? FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING RETARD!”
In Civil War, the anti-registration side is led by Captain America. Come on, you mean to tell me that no one on the pro-registration side would say, “I disagree with him, but I’m not going to fight Captain America. It’s . . . it’s Captain America, people! Captain. America. No way. Count me out.” Rather it’s “Fuck Captain America! Fucking brain him!”
The closest you get is the Thing, who decides to leave the country rather than participate in the whole nonsense, but he is more akin to frustrated Americans who choose not to vote rather than a voice of reason.
As well, the tagline for the series, “Whose side are you on?” cannot help but echo George Bush’s statements of either being with the terrorists or with America, allowing for no middle ground.
One side is the left, the other the right and the only way to resolve anything is to destroy the other side. No rational attempts at conversation, no attempts at compromise, nothing but extremes. In that way, Civil War accomplishes its task to be an analogy for the US. The question if whether or not it is because of the tradition of superheroes being quick to fight rather than talk, and the need for an exciting, conflict-filled story, or a deliberate move on the part of the creators. Personally, I opt for the latter.
Friday, September 01, 2006
Day 16 of August is dedicated to one of the greatest teams to come out of the '50s, the Challengers of the Unknown!
Four strangers are on a plane together: Ace--the pilot; Red--the daredevil; Rocky--the boxer; and Prof--the scientist. The plane crashes under mysterious circumstances but they all miraculously survive. now declaring themselves to be "living on borrowed time," they decide to form a group of adventurers, going about solving mysteries and investigating weird phenomena.
Since their inception in the '50s, the Challs have always been B-listers, but if not for popularity of their adventures into the weird and spooky, superhero comics might not have seen the resurgence they did in that time period.
Of course I am much too young to have read any of those adventures, although I greatly look forward to the release of their Showcase edition in a few months (the cover of which is pictured first in this entry). No my first introduction to them was in the above issue of Secret Origins. Dunno how I ended up with it, but I did, I read it and I loved it. I wanted more Challs, so I tracked down a few old issues of their 70s revival from garage sales and flea markets.
And then Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale brought the Challs into the present day with an eight-issue mini that began with their HQ blowing up and the team being blamed for the deaths this explosion caused. It was mindblowing stuff for me, and it spawned the love I have for Loeb/Sale collaborations to this day.
This eight issue mini by the way is available in trade, and here's what it looks like:
One of my favorite superman stories of the 90s featured the Challs, who have time-travelled from the 50s to the modern era while on the chase of an evil villain from the future:
I've been with the Challs for years, following them into the late '90s when a new team took the name:
And although that book didn't last too long, I loved it while it lasted.
More recently Howard Chaykin revamped the team yet again, but I actually have yet to read this version (available in trade, I'm told) so if anyone has advice for me on that series, please let me know.
And finally when Andy Kubert said at the DCU panel on Saturday of Chicago Con that he would LOVE to do a Challs revival, my heart raced. The team is still out there adventuring; their borrowed time has yet to run out. And it warms my heart to know I may be reading more of their adventures soon.
Fallen Angel is my pick for Day 17 of August
Fallen Angel is one of the few books I'm willing to buy from IDW. The publisher insists on overcharging for their books by about a dollar an issue, but my love for this book is so great that I willingly followed it when it was cancelled at DC and moved to the indie publisher, even though the book was then a bit more expensive than I'd like.
It's definitely worth the money though, because here Peter David is firing on all cylinders as a writer. I've been a fan of PAD's for years, ever since I read his earliest Star Trek: TNG books (that's right; recovering Trekkie in the house), and his Hulk will always be the definitive Hulk for me. He's written a few stinkers in his day too, however, and I'm not always that fond of his public persona or his rabid fanbase (which is almost Byrne-esque in proportion). Yet when he's at his best, he's capable of some great stuff... and Fallen Angel's probably the best stuff he's ever done.
This book is everything JMS wanted Midnight Nation or Book of Lost Souls to be and more. It explores the metaphysical ideas in a much less clumsy fashion than either of those books has, and throws in a bunch of action to boot. Great character development also abounds, as most of the characters (including the titular "fallen angel") in the book are not purely good or evil but instead fall somewhere in the gray areas between. So if you liked the ideas behind those books but don't like JMS (Matt), Fallen Angel might be the book for you.
OR if you're a big Joss Whedon fan, then you might want to try this book as well, for it uses a couple of scenarios that echo those in the Buffy-verse. It focuses on a hard-edged woman with powers beyond that of mortals (Lee/Liandra) fighting against the evils present in a small town named Bete Noire. The town is secretly controlled by mysterious higher powers known as the Hierarchy, who work through the mayor of this town Dr. Juris, who is himself involved in a relationship with Lee.
Personally I preferred the art of the DC version of this book to the IDW continuation. David Lopez was the original artist and his style reminded me a great deal of
Two trades exist, collecting the first six DC issues and the first five IDW issues. Unfortunately the majority of the series will probably have to be something you track down in back issues, because I doubt DC ever reprints issues 7-20 of this series. But it's really worth the effort to chase them down because the book is really fantastic stuff.
Day 18 of August brings me to my salute to the nerdiest of the nerds: the comic academics! For years in academic circles it was taboo to discuss the idea of comics as a legitimate artform, but thanks to these noble pioneers, many people have changed their perspectives on comics, seeing the literary and artistic merit within them and acknowledging their place as a valid storytelling medium.
This is James Sturm, director of the Center for Cartoon Studies. This school is devoted to studying every aspect of comics, not just the art and how to make a comic but its publishing history as well. He also founded The National Association of Comics Art Educators, a discussion group and online resource for anyone interested in teaching comics in any form, from an entire course to one particular unit.
And this guy here would be John A. Lent, founder of an academic journal called the International Journal of Comic Art. Released twice a year this journal publishes scholarly articles on comics from around the globe, exploring a myriad of topics from an analysis of social satire in Tim Truman's Scout to a history of comic art in
Similarly, academic conferences on comics have been popping up all over the country over the past ten or fifteen years. One of the oldest is known as the International Comic Arts Festival, which is usually held in conjunction with the Small Press Expo and which I will actually be attending this year. Of course there are several other notable conferences strictly on comics, including the Comic Arts Conference, held annually in conjunction with San Diego Comic-Con, and the
And of course there are scholarly texts by the dozens, that range in subject from the culture of comic book fandom to specific areas of comic history such as the underground revolution or comics of the Cold War era. Two particular works I've enjoyed include Comic Book Nation by Bradford Wright, a very general overview of the history of comics publishing, and Richard Reynolds's Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, which basically does what it claims in its title.
I'd also highly recommend more specialized books like Men of Tomorrow, which focuses on the creators of Superman and their publishers Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebovitz, or Hanging with the Dream King, a series of interviews with various artists on Neil Gaiman. Will Eisner: A Spirited Life is a fascinating bio on the man who shaped modern comics, and Considering Maus collects a number of essays on Art Spiegelman's seminal work.
Finally, just today I bought the book on the left, Alternative Comics, which looks to be a pretty interesting exploration of the indie scene in comics in the past thirty or so years. Meanwhile a friend of mine, Pete Coogan, just published a book called Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, which I can't wait to get a chance to dig into.
So please don't think that just because they're written by scholars they are by nature boring. Many of these books are really entertaining as well as enlightening, so perhaps search your local library to see if they might be able to pass one or two of these books your way.
Day 19 of August brings us to the Shakespeare or the Orson Welles of comics, a man whose name is revered by all: Mr. Will Eisner.
You know you're a big name when the biggest award for excellence in the industry is named after you, and Eisner is certainly deserving of such an honor. but he's also one of those creators that, I have a sneaking suspicion, few people have actually read that much of, so I'd like to point you to a few books of his that youy might enjoy.
To the Heart of the Storm is one of Eisner's books in which he puts a very thin veil of fiction over his own life experiences involving war. Eisner worked with the military for years in various capacities, and so the subject of war crops up in his work often. but in this story as in his others, war itself is merely the framework for some very human drama. While on a train to boot camp having newly been drafted to fight in WW2, "Willie" flashes back to his home and school life as he grew up and the various prejudices he faced.
A Family Matter skips the framework and simply focuses on a family that is breaking apart. The patriarch of the family is 90 years old and has just suffered a stroke that has rendered him incapable of speech. The rest of the family must make the decision of how to care for their father, and in the process almost all the bad blood in the family, a history of death and abuse, is dredged up over the course of the evening. Heartwrenching stuff.
Of course Eisner is best known for his work through the 40s and 50s on The Spirit, the masked crimefighter whose adventures graced newspapers around the country every weekend. If you've never read any Spirit stories, then the above trade, The Best of the Spirit, is probably the place to start. While not all of the stories in it are MY personal faves, they're still pretty good. I especially enjoy "Gerhard Schnobble" and "Two Lives" which are pretty inventive little stories that really aren't ABOUT The Spirit at all.
Eisner is frequently given credit for creating the graphic novel with his work A Contract With God, and although that's a subject of debate among some, the quality of his work is not. The recent hardcover collecting that book,
Day 20. Two-thirds in. Still a bit behind but pressing on.
I'm devoting today to what is probably my favorite comic publisher, the one that I have derived the most joy from over the course of the past ten years than any other: Vertigo.
I've already mentioned in a previous post my love for a few Vertigo series. Animal Man and Doom Patrol came up while discussing Morrison's work and although those books weren't technically Vertigo books, since Vertigo didn't exist at the time, they certainly were in the Vertigo vein and helped pave the way for the DC imprint. Of course even though those books already existed and switched to Vertigo when the imprint was founded, Sandman Mystery Theater was the first official new series Vertigo created. And when I spoke of Ellis, one of the two books of his I featured was Orbiter, a book I remember hearing Colleen Doran discuss at my first ever Vertigo panel several years ago at Wizard World Chicago.
And you all undoubtedly know already about the various classic series that defined the company: Swamp Thing, Sandman, Shade the Changing Man, Transmet and Preacher. currently running series like Lucifer, Y the Last Man and 100 Bullets are sure to enter that group once a few years have passed from their conclusions.
And all of thse series share some common traits, despite their obvious differences in storylines and genres. They all stand out as having a bit more depth of character than other comics; the people feel more real. People tend to think of Vertigo in regards to its comics being for "mature audiences," meaning swearing, violence and sex. But really those things are only part of the story because they're what real people see and do every day. It's part of the framework, just as much as the fantastic or supernatural plots, to delve into the humanity of their main characters.
When Vertigo began years ago, they were rather well known for producing a number of short miniseries such as Enigma, Sebastian O, Scene of the Crime, Moonshadow, Chiaroscuro, Industrial Gothic, and
Currently Vertigo is publishing more OGNs than minis but they're still by the best in the biz. Gilbert Hernandez recently released his book Sloth, which joined Harvey Pekar's The Quitter and Dave Gibbons's The Originals on bookstore shelves. I've not yet read Rick Veitch's Cant Get No, but I am eager to, and Brian K. Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad definitely intrigues me.
Vertigo has also seen a number of new ongoing series begin in the past year as well, and many of them fit quite well in the grand tradition of Vertigo. While I've enjoyed the future war series DMZ or the Western Loveless, the best new Vertigo series in my opinion has been American Virgin, the story of a young man who took a vow to wait to have sex until he married his girlfriend, only to have his girlfriend killed while in
In the end this post has basically just ended up being a laundry list of excellence. I haven't said much about any of these series, because there's just too much to try to cover. If you have questions about any of the books mentioned here, please ask. Similarly, I've skipped a few Vertigo titles that I'll follow up on in the next few days, in part because I want to give these books special highlights... but also because it's awfully hard to condense an entire imrpint's publishing history down to one brief article, especially when almost all of it has been brilliant and innovative stuff.
(And since we're on the subject of Vertigo: If someone could point me the way to copies of the Vertigo minis The Extremist, Goddess, Witchcraft or The Last One or the second issue of Gaiman's Black Orchid mini, it would be greatly helpful to me.)
My Vertigo love continues into Day 21, as I post to express my love for a character who in essence embodies everything Vertigo is all about. He's the quintessential Vertigo character, one foot in the DCU and one in the mature reader realm, a man involved in all kinds of shady business, both criminal and supernatural.
He's John Constantine. Chain smoker. Magus. Anti-hero.
Created by Alan Moore in 1985 in Swamp Thing #37, Constantine as a character has passed through many authorial hands since then, including Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey, Peter Milligan, Rick Veitch... the list goes on and on, and that's just the writers.
And in all of these interpretations by these various authors, one constant has remained true:
But on the other hand another dominant characteristic of
Rather than being the horrible person he believes himself to be,
The definitive trade paperback of course is Dangerous Habits, which collects the storyline in which
Really, there's no bad Hellblazer comics. John Constantine is just too cool a character to let anyone write him badly.
Day 22 of August concludes my Vertigo-specific entries with a book that didn't start out as a DC book at all, but has eventually been enveloped by the Vertigo imprint. It is a book that it was inevitable that I speak of here, for it is my favorite graphic novel of all time.
It is V for Vendetta, a book that is reprinted today by DC from their ten-part series of 1988, which in turn was made up of reprints of work originally seen in
It pains me to hear from people that have seen the movie and not read the book, for the book is infinitely better than the film, sheerly for its depth. It also pains me to hear people say
Rather, Moore's best work comes in the form of a novel about the fascist government in the England of the future and the man who rebels against the system, a man named only V. V for Vendetta is not only my favorite graphic novel but quite possibly also the best work written to date in this medium. To me it seems a person cannot call himself or herself a comic book afficionado without having read this book.
Now admittedly, I am quite biased in claiming it is the best comic ever written, because my love for it is so deep. V for Vendetta marked a first for my collection, as it was the first book I owned as both individual issues and in trade paperback form. I have given away my trade paperback before, only to buy a new copy when I missed it so much. I hope to someday own the original Warrior issues and I fully intend, sometime in the next few months, to purchase a copy of the book in hardcover as well, sheerly for durability's sake.
You see, V for Vendetta is also the only comic book I read repeatedly. I can say without exaggeration that I have probably read V for Vendetta at least twenty times if not more, and I know that I shall read it again. Very few books I read in any form are deemed worthy of repeat perusals. Breakfast of Champions is one, A Prayer for Owen Meany another, Catch-22 yet another-these are all books that I come back to many times to read again and again, gaining new perspectives on both the text and myself each time we cross paths. And V for Vendetta is among them, a book I cannot go more than a year without opening anew.
Shall I give you tons of reasons why I think it's so brilliant? Shall I tell you of the deep philosophical mind of the main character V, a man who takes a meaningful stand against the system for the betterment of mankind? Shall I inform you of the beautiful portrayal of Evey, a young girl who has lost all to the system and whom V takes under his wing? Shall I tell you of David Lloyd's exquisite artwork which makes the cityscapes of
I could. I could expound upon the type of analysis I do when I've taught V for Vendetta in the past (and which I will do again this spring) about whether or not V is a terrorist, about whether the main character of the book is V or Evey, about whose face lies behind the mask and if that question even matters.
But I won't. Instead I shall choose not to spoil your reading experience and leave you to discover these things for yourself. Even if you've seen the film, there is much more to discover in the novel.
Just one warning, though: do your damnedest not to cry when you read Valerie's letter, composed on toilet paper. It gets me every time.
Day 23 of August, and we're getting closer and closer to the end of my month in the challenge. I've devoted entries to my two favorite publishers, to my favorite graphic novel... I think it's fair to spend a little time discussing my favorite genre of comic: autobio comics.
Ever since I first read Maus back in college, Art Spiegelman's classic tale of his father's experiences in a concentration camp, I've been gaga for biographical comics, esp. those told in the style of memoirs. Maus's draw for me was not just that it told his father's Holocaust narrative, but also that it focused on his relationship with his father as well, honestly and without comment.
Of course I have not been the only one who went nutso for autobio. It seems that the mainstream media has picked up on this trend in comics, and every memoir that has been released over the past few years has been met with great hype. Luckily most of that hype has been deserved, as was the case with both Blankets and
But you've doubtlessly heard of those books at the very least, and since I've already discussed the autobio work of Jeffrey Brown with you, I want to talk about two others that you might not have read: I Never Liked You by Chester Brown and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
A series of short vignettes that span Brown's teenage years, I Never Liked You highlights his relationships with four different women. there's , who
Finally there's Fun Home. Fun Home is about Alison Bechdel coming of age and realizing she liked girls. Add in the fact that for years her father has been repressing his own homosexuality, and you've got an interesting parallel if nothing else. Add in that her father died about a month after she came out of the closet, and you've got the makings of a very interesting story.
Fun Home is chockful of symbolism and strange juxtapositions. We see Bechdel throughout the book in various stages of development; in one scene she may be in college, and the next she's eight years old. Meanwhile she's analyzing her parents' lives, reading a vast amount of literature, exploring the world around her. It's multilayered and it hits a homerun on every page. It's gripping stuff, really, and should be on everyone's must read list.
These examples are only two of the great autobio comics out there, and hopefully if neither of these appeal to you, you might still be inspired to seek out another work in this genre, for I feel it is one area that comics really have a lot going for them at the moment.
Day 24 of the Challenge is devoted to the most brilliant man working in comics today: Scott McCloud!
No work of "sequential art" has changed my way of looking at comics specifically and the world in general as much as McCloud's fantastic book Understanding Comics. I can't even begin to explain how much my mind was blown all those years ago when I happened into the nearest comic shop to my hometown, Scottie's Comics, one Saturday afternoon when I was home from my freshman year of college for the weekend. The title alone was enough to make me grab it off the shelf, and even after a brief flipthrough, I knew it was going to be phenomenal and had to buy it straight away.
The book's discussion of how words and art work together to tell stories in comics is absolutely revolutionary. Its analysis of word/art combinations, including various types like duo-specific and parallel, will change the way you look at each panel of the comics you read. and similarly its exploration of panel-to-panel transitions, including its emphasis on closure, will forever alter how you read each page.
Beyond just its application to comics, McCloud raises some interesting points that speak to the human condition in general, especially regarding our inclination to be drawn to iconography. Often waxing philosophical, McCloud explores how comics reflect the fact that we as a people gravitate towards symbols, we identify with those things that most resemble ourselves, and we form our own identities based not only on the ways we perceive ourselves but how others perceive us.
And I'm very excited about McCloud's newest book Making Comics, which comes out on September 5. I wasn't as big a fan of Reinventing Comics because it explored webcomics a BIT too much for my tastes, but I think this one will see him returning to form a bit more. Can't wait to pick it up, and I know that the second I do, it'll jump right to the "to read" stack of books.
Of course the really great thing about his new book coming out is... he's doing a book tour in support of its release, including an appearance at SPX this October. I cannot WAIT for the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak in person. It will quite possibly make my year.
"Hey Steve!" comes a voice from out of the crowd of challenge readers. "I'm tired of reading your thoughts about random indie books and the like. I prefer my comics to have guys in capes and tights in them! Give me some superhero recommendations, wouldja???"
Well, I'm glad you mentioned it actually, random heckler, because Day 25 begins the last week of my part of the Isotope Challenge, and I started out the challenge knowing I was going to hold the hero books off to the very end. So here begins my last week, my tribute to the superheroes.
And what better place to start with the costumed crimefighters than with one of my favorite hero books ever, Batman The Long Halloween?
Every writer of Batman for the past twenty years or so has been living in the shadow of Frank Miller. With both Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, Miller nailed down a reputation as one of the best creators to ever tackle the mythos surrounding the caped crusader, at the same time setting a standard for quality stories that, to be honest, few have even come close to reaching since.
But this seminal miniseries, in which writer Jeph Loeb collaborates with his frequent partner artist Tim Sale, stands out as the best story involving the character in the past fifteen years and one of the greatest Batman tales told of all time.
A mystery told in 13 parts, The Long Halloween spans over three hundred pages and not a one of them is wasted. Taking place over the course of one year in the life of Batman, the story follows shortly after the events of Batman: Year One, when Batman first arrived on the scene in
But far more than being a tale of the mob in
Those characters usually relegated to minor status are also allowed to come out in full force. Selina Kyle, Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon-all have been a part of Batman's life for years, but here we get to see how these relationships started, what molded them into the shape they are today. Even Johnny Viti, one of those minor mafiosos Miller threw into Year One, Loeb gives a chance to shine in this tale, although his time on the page is almost as brief. The characters draw readers in, truly engaging them in the narrative much more so than a mere four-color fistfight or a soap opera in tights can.
The art too is absolutely exquisite. Tim Sale is an artist who can really make characters breathe, and his action sequences truly come to life. Too often comic artists make many of their characters look the same, but
Thematically the book transcends the conventions of either the superhero or crime genres and ends up meaning so much more than a typical tale of good versus evil. By the end of this story, everyone has suffered from being a part of it; in the end, no one wins. This concept is a constant in Batman's life, that his crusade is not actually spawned by the death of his parents, but by the consistent losses he has felt in his life ever since that fateful day. For Batman, and for everyone else that crosses his path in this story, the losses continue here as well.
The Long Halloween is one of the quintessential Batman stories, and no one can lay claim to the label of a true Bat-fan without having partaken of the sheer brilliance crafted here by Loeb and
Over the years, it seems that many of my favorite hero books haven't lasted. either they've got a limited run from the start (like my favorite hero book ever, which will be mentioned in the final challenge entry) or, more frequently, they get cancelled before their time (such as another book which will be mentioned in my next to last entry--how's that for teasing you for future entries?).
Anyway, I want to devote a little time today, on day 26 of the August Isotope Challenge, to some of my favorite comics which got the axe.
One such book was John Arcudi's revision of the Doom Patrol in 2001. Drawn beautifully by Tan Eng Huat, the book explored a number of pastiches of hero books, including the teen hero group, the group of heroes who feel like "outsiders" from the rest of the world, a hero team with corporate sponsorship, and so on. Arcudi managed to juggle all these ideas, to create some interesting new characters who really stood out from the typical superheroes, and to pay homage to previous continuity. It really was an amazingly fun little book, and I was very sad to see it go.
Next up is a great hero book called Chase. Named after the main character Cameron Chase, the book focused on the adventures of a government agent who hates superheroes and whose assignment... is to patrol and police superheroes. Brilliantly written by Dan Curtis johnson and illustrated beautifully by JH Williams III, Chase was a book that filled in many of the gaps in the DCU and did so with such style and with such an interesting lead character that it's no wonder that Chase herself has long since survived the cancellation of her own series, popping up over and over again in the DCU in the interim years.
Cancelled at the same time as Chronos was another fun book I loved dearly called Chronos. It was about a time-travelling "hero" who had been mentored by a Silver Age supervillain and who had many misadventures throughout the history of the DCU in his very short run. Paul Francis Moore brought the character to life with his words and Paul Guinan handled artistic chores deftly.
Finally there's HERO, a recent book by Will Pfeifer and artist
There are plenty of others I could have mentioned, like Breach or Hourman and the list goes on and on. I don't know why it is that I tend to be drawn to these marginal heroes, but I think each of these examples shows that just because a book doesn't sell well doesn't mean it's not a quality book.
Doom Patrol reached issue number 22 of its run; Chase had ten issues, including its final issue, the million issue. Chronos similarly had a million issue, even though it only totaled 12 issues, and HERO went all the way up to issue 24, if I'm not mistaken. It actually mustered enough support to see a TPB released of its first four issues, whereas the rest of the books weren't as lucky. But any or all of them should be easy to find on Ebay or in quarter bins for very low prices.
Good luck scavenging!
There's just something about a good retro hero book to bring out the childish glee in me, so I dedicate my entry for day 27 to these modern works set in the days of yore.
Perhaps the granddaddy of all retro hero books is The Golden Age, a four issue mini by James Robinson and Paul Smith. (Thanks to
I particularly love the "love triangle" of sorts we see between Johnny Quick, his ex-wife Liberty Belle, and her new boyfriend the Tarantula. the relationships struck me as the most realistic I had ever seen in comics up to this point. The pitfalls that Libby must deal with as John Law suffers through writer's block and drifts into an alcoholic haze are only compounded by Johnny's repeated attempts to win her back... it's heartbreaking stuff.
And if Robinson did this well with the minor characters, it should be obvious that he shone even more brightly with the big guns like Alan Scott as Green Lantern and of course Ted Knight as Starman. The issues that Scott has to deal with in regards to blacklist and Knight must face regarding his role in the Manhattan Project root the story in the real world, and by extension the characters take on more realistic personae. By placing them firmly in a recognizable historical context and showing how these characters deal with the changing times, we see them as very real and human.
And amazingly the plot device that is revealed in the end does not seem contrived or absurd at all; despite the realistic setting of the book, or perhaps because of it, when the book veers into Twilight Zone territory in the end, we accept it without the slightest issue. Brilliantly executed.
Robinson announced his intention at the time of Golden Age's completion to do a follow-up book entitled The Silver Age, that basically would place the Justice League in a similar historical context as he had done with the Justice Society. However this plan never came to fruition, due in no small part to the fact that Mark Waid and Barry Kitson eventually produced JLA Year One, a book that fulfilled many of the same objectives.
A bit less concerned with history and more with continuity, JLA Year One was a modernized retelling of the origins of the Justice League, a retrofitting that served to clear up confusing issues of DC history lingering from the Crisis and Zero Hour. While an excellent and fun superhero book, it's not *quite* in the same vein as Golden Age, owing more to the "continuty clean-up" style of story that Waid would eventually use for Superman Birthright as well. Despite having enjoyed JLA Year One (and Superman Birthright as well), I would have much preferred to have Robinson's version.
A more direct forebearer for the torch Golden Age lit would be Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier. Focusing on the Silver Age era heroes such as Hal Jordan as Green Lantern and Barry Allen as the Flash, it was a story set in the late '50s, reimagining the DCU as if the heroes had debuted in their original historical context. Hal
With the same excellent level of character development that Robinson displayed in Golden Age, Cooke does a fantastic job of crafting his story, and it doesn't hurt either that his art is frickin' gorgeous. the book is paced to perfection as each vignette perfectly depicts one small aspect of this world, eventually leading us to a grand finale that pulls all of the various pieces together in the end. And that finale is epic in scope, even if, like Golden Age, it verges into some B-grade science fiction material.
Both The Golden Age and New Frontier represent the best that retro hero books have to offer, really capturing the look and feel of the time period they are set in (even if they're not always one hundred percent historically accurate). Check them out in trade paperback, or wait until the Absolute edition of New Frontier is released next month. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
Enough of the past and those golden halcyon days. Let us look now on day 28 to the dark times of the present and the even darker future timelines that make up the dystopian hero stories. Ever since Claremont and Byrne first gave us a bleak glimpse into the X-men's future in Days of Future Past, comic creators have used this story device to comment on the world around us or to let us see what our favorite heroes' lives might be like if it all went wrong. And who can forget the most famous look into the future life of a hero of all, Dark Knight Returns? Still brilliant all these years later, even if it's a bit dated in places.
one of my favorite books that explores what could potentially happen to our modern heroes would have to be Kingdom Come. Now I know there are those out there who aren't the biggest fans of this book, but I have to admit that I still find the book riveting. In the story, the modern big guns of the DCU have all gradually slipped from the public eye, leaving a more violent ilk of hero in charge in their absence.
Eventually however Superman returns to the spotlight when a group of new heroes, tracking down a villain who is frightened for fear of his life due to their shoot-first-ask-questions-later tactics, accidentally trigger a nuclear explosion that wipes out his home state of
The book highlights this rift by featuring as its protagonist a regular man, a priest, named Norman McCay. The Spectre is yet another hero who, though once tied to a human host, has lost touch with any human qualities he might have once had, and so he enlists
In the end the book makes the point that in order for superheroes and normal humans to coexist, the heroes must remain in touch with their humanity. Over the course of the book we see more and more heroes who seem inhuman: the Flash patrols Central City at such high speeds he is little more than a blur and Batman doesn't patrol
Of course one of the longest-running books that focused on the future of the DCU went dark toward the end of its original run. But that's another book I'm saving for my final entry of the month.
Instead I'll end on a final dystopian book that is not set in the future but the present day, Squadron Supreme. In this book, the heroes decide that we humans need someone to make decisions for us. So they usurp the government's power, take over
Pretty quickly one of the heroes speaks out against the rest of his team. He objects to the ideas of these heroes, stating that by taking control away from the common man, they are trampling on all the freedoms
Well, actually it's Nighthawk, but it might as well be Batman. It is well-documented that writer Mark Gruenwald was a huge fan of the Justice League and that, when he created the Squadron Supreme at Marvel, he was openly aping the DC team so he could play with the other company's toys in his own backyard. Even reading the names of some of these heroes you can see obvious parallels. Hyperion, Power Princess, Amphibian, Whizzer, Dr. Spectrum-the list goes on and on.
But Gruenwald takes the characters and makes them his own, drawing on the archetypes we're familiar with and taking their personalities to the inevitable conclusion. Each character stands out from the creation they were originally carbon-copied from. Golden Archer's obsessive love for Lady Lark stretches into darker corners than Ollie and Dinah's relationship ever did, and Nuke's youthful impetuousness is at times incredibly destructive, a far cry from Firestorm over in the JLA.
Apart from making the characters his own, Gruenwald similarly pulled no punches with the plot and showed that even the actions of superheroes have very real consequences. This story is mired in tragedy and heartbreak; as the story unfolds over the course of a year in this utopia, members of the Squadron Supreme quit the team, are forced out, and even die. The inevitable conclusion to the story is very much a predecessor to the widescreen action style we see in comics of today, yet its violence is not sensationalized or especially bloody. Characters are killed in horrific ways in this melee, not just for a cool fight scene but for a logical purpose, to drive the theme of the story home for the reader.
Dozens of stories since 1985 have taken this idea and run with it, and I freely admit that those books, books like Kingdom Come or The Authority, did the concept a bit better than Squadron Supreme does. The art here is uneven and juvenile at times; the dialogue is similarly a bit cheesy, as characters break into long speeches to debate the larger moral issues behind their actions without a hint of subtlety. But still this work is groundbreaking and many stories of today owe Squadron Supreme a great debt of gratitude. For this reason, and for many others, this book is worth your attention.
entry 29 of the August Isotope Challenge brings me to one of my favorite creators ever to grace comics with his presence: John Ostrander.
John Ostrander’s work for DC in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is often heralded as some of the best comics of the time period. Especially in regards to his run on Suicide Squad, his ability to mix genres into intriguing and engaging plots while adding depth to previously flat second-string characters stands out above many of his contemporaries. Formerly insignificant or one-note villains like Captain Boomerang and Deadshot were given the opportunity to shine in this book and develop personalities all their own
In the late '90s, Ostrander applied this same pinache for fleshing out B-listers to Martian Manhunter, the consummate benchwarmer and second fiddle, in his own solo book. Not only did he add a great deal to the mythos of the character over his 30-odd issue run in the title, but he also rounded out the entire DCU by illustrating how J'onn had interacted with many heroes in various guises over the years, inspiring them to be more and do more. The issue in which J'onn revealed himself to have been one of Clark
But often overlooked in this praise is the work Ostrander did with his wife Kim Yale on the book Manhunter. Published for only twenty-four issues starting in 1988, the book was a spin-off from the DC crossover event Millennium, and it centered on the character of Mark Shaw, a former villain trying to redeem himself by working as a bounty hunter. Although he was looked down upon by the police for being essentially a hero for hire, he was also motivated strongly by his own moral code. The book followed not only his battles with various villains, but also his personal struggles with his family, with love, and with his own ethics.
For me, however, this series will always be special, for it represents a number of firsts in my comic collecting career. In many ways, Manhunter was my first fanboy obsession. DC’s books had been carrying an ad for the comic for a while, offering a special subscription at a discount rate. Just looking at the character, with his red and blue jumpsuit and his high-tech mask and baton, I was already enraptured. I knew I could not miss one of this character’s adventures. Never before had I had such an immediate response to a character I knew nothing about, but this time I was hooked.
Thus, this book was the first series that I got a subscription to, with my own money, which I earned by delivering complimentary copies of a special section of the newspaper to all the local businesses who had advertised in it. It was only one day’s worth of work, but it was hard-earned as I had to trek all over town. Still it was worth it when the issues finally came. As a gift for my subscription, the first issue had been autographed by the writers and artist. It was the first autographed book I ever got, and it still is one of the prizes of my collection.
Sadly, Manhunter was another first for me: the first book I collected that was cancelled. I remember I was devastated when I saw the cover of the final issue, which boldly announced “Manhunter No More!” Then later when I read the farewell lettercolumn and my fears were proven true, my little fanboy heart was broken. I had guessed that the end was coming, since prior to the final issue the series had been engulfed in a six-issue epic story pitting Shaw against his arch-nemesis Dumas one last time. All the while copies were becoming harder to find in those spinner racks, but I refused to read the handwriting on the wall. Once the book had ended, I was crushed.
Looking back on the series now, I still find it as strong a read as I recall (unlike so many other hero stories that I read when a child, which when read today smack of being the cheesiest examples of superhero storytelling known to man). Perhaps the main reason the book has stood the test of time, why it reached me then and today, is the take on the main character. He was different from all the other superheroes around at the time. He didn’t have tons of powers, fighting crime through the use of a few gadgets and his wits. He didn’t have grand reasons for being a hero, like the death of his parents or favorite uncle. Instead he did it for money, even if he was at heart a good person.
And the stories went beyond the “epic battle of good versus evil” to explore the more human aspects of this character, really rounding him out and making him seem like a real person to me. His supporting cast too really stood out; in fact to this day one of my favorite comics of all time is issue five of this series, an issue written solely by Kim Yale. This issue focuses not on Mark Shaw but on a woman named Sylvia who works a desk at the police station Mark Shaw brings his busts to.
A later issue had a back-up story by Yale and artist Sam Keith called “Fairy Tale” that also stands out in my memory. This story focuses on the captain of that police department, who doesn’t like Shaw much, and his daughter who adores Manhunter. In that story, the captain tells his daughter a bedtime story, transferring the events of a recent bust Manhunter made into a fairy tale setting, a truly innovative change in tone and point of view for the time. Manhunter explored various themes of political intrigue with its ties to Suicide Squad. It involved aspects of Japanese culture in its major stories, especially the first and last stories which featured elements of the Yakuza. Whenever guest stars showed up, it was always to serve the story, not just to sell more issues, and they always added new dimensions to the characters that I had never seen before. The two issues which were part of the Invasion crossover guest-starred the Flash, making him out to be a hotheaded young punk that caused trouble for Shaw rather than helping him.
In short, it was everything normal superhero stories were not, which is the type of superhero story I find myself drawn to even today. Perhaps it was just too off-beat for it to survive, and it truly is a shame it was cut down after such a short time. I still look on those twenty-four issues as one of the best runs of a book I’ve ever read.
(If anyone can help me find out more, or in fact find copies of, Ostrander's Spectre run, which I'm told is his masterpiece, I would greatly appreciate it.)
day 30. after this, only one day left in my version of the Isotope challenge. And I figured, since so much of my challenge has been spent on old series and trades I've loved over the years, I'd spend this next-to-last entry talking about a few ongoing hero titles I'm reading at present.
And perhaps the best hero book on stands today, for my money, is Invincible by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley. It has been called the most popular comic to come out of Image since Spawn, and it's very much deserving of that acclaim. The book focuses on Mark Grayson, the son of a famous superhero. Mark too develops powers of his own during his senior year of high school, and he finally is able to live his dream and follow in his father's footsteps as a hero.
But the great thing about this book is that it manages to be so many different types of hero books all rolled into one. It's a hero legacy book. It's a teen hero book. It's a team book, as Invincible joins, temporarily at least, the Guardians of the Globe. It's a book about a government sponsored hero. It's about the perils of superheroics on the real lives of the heroes in the secret identities, both literal dangers and emotional traumas. There's characterization a plenty, plots and subplots and slow developing storylines... this book literally has everything you would want from a hero book, and more.
Now as for the best hero book being published by the Big Two, I'm going to be a little controversial and say 52.
Week in and week out, I've been enjoying the heck out of 52. Plain and simple, it's just a darn fun read. Is it the best superhero story ever told? no, of course not. But it's bankably good every issue, with decent character development and intriguing mysteries that keep you coming back. And with a creative team like Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid and Keith Giffen, you're basically assured of some quality work.
of course it's not afraid to shake things up by introducing new characters such as the Chinese heroes The Great Ten, Isis or of course Batwoman, by changing the status quo of established characters such as Adam Strange (now blind), or by even killing off fan favorite characters like Booster Gold. Now again, I know this book has its share of "haters" but I think if you just sit back for the ride, it's a fascinating look at the DCU as a whole, told through the lens of some minor characters who are left to fill in the gaps when the big guns disappear.
My last entry.
Devoted to things I wanted to talk about but didn't, for one reason or another. Lots of brief entries below.
If Morty hadn't written a fantastic entry on Starman during his version of the challenge, I surely would have. Starman is my favorite comic of all time and it's positively fantastic, particularly the first two years worth of issues. you MUST track down the trades.
And then Goody came along and stole my second favorite series of all time: the five year gap Legion. Actually I have been a Legion fan in general since my early years, thanks to the DC digests I picked up at the local grocery store when I was a kid. I got to read the reprints when I was young, and as I grew up, so did the comic. Loved this gritty era, again especially the first three or four years.
I purposefully chose not to write about a couple of books--Camelot 3000, Ronin, 300, Born Again, and Age of Bronze--because they are all books that I have covered before. A few years back I wrote a weekly review column called A+ Graphic Novels and every week I spoke about a TPB I adored. I wrote about all of the above books there, and I didn't want to repeat myself. So if you want to know why those books rock, go to the link above and read.
(I should also point out that I did repeat myself a bit with some of the entries in the challenge: TLH, V for Vendetta, and Squadron Supreme. Sorry.)
I didn't get a chance to talk about a mini I'm loving at the moment, Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan, nor a non-hero ongoing that is actually the only comic my wife is willing to read, the romance book True Story Swear to God by Tom Beland. Just couldn't squeeze them in; since they weren't hero books per se (Escapists is about people who are creating a hero comic, but isn't a hero book itself), I ran out of room for them.
Nor could I fit in some GNs that are in the realism mode, Mother Come Home and Jar of Fools. Wanted to try to stretch the autobio entry to fit them but couldn't because... they're not. They're just damn good stories about real people with real problems, Mother Come Home about a boy who takes car of his father after his mother dies and Jar of Fools about a retired vaudevillian escaping from his nursing home to run around with his failed magician protege.
If it were after September 13, my Vertigo entry would have included Pride of Baghdad. If it were after September 15th, my autobio entry would have included Three Paradoxes (a book by Mother Come Home author Paul Hornschemeier that I have been looking forward to for quite some time). And were it after Oct. 16th, my Eisner entry would have included his new hardcover collection Eisner's NY--Life in the
And finally there are a number of cool books coming from the big Two in the next few months: Mystery in Space, Tales of the Unexpected, Omega Men, Criminal, and Omega the Unknown. Really looking forward to all those minis, and I'm glad to see the big Two branching out a bit from superhero books.
But I didn't have time to explore any of those. It's a shame that my month has ended. I'll miss posting; I just have way too much comic love to contain in 31 days, I guess.
thanks all. Looking forward to reading your entries in the future.