We’re very proud to direct you to the Albany, NY Times-Union’s Comics Multiverse blog, where our very own Mick Martin is now blogging about comics. Mick’s It Takes A Villain column will continue to explore villain-centric comics here on TWC, and he’ll share his thoughts on comics with TU readers as well. His debut post is fun and informative and a little offbeat, as you’d expect, so click the link above and check out Mick’s new gig.
We’re very proud to direct you to the Albany, NY Times-Union’s Comics Multiverse blog, where our very own Mick Martin is now blogging about comics. Mick’s It Takes A Villain column will continue to explore villain-centric comics here on TWC, and he’ll share his thoughts on comics with TU readers as well. His debut post is fun and informative and a little offbeat, as you’d expect, so click the link above and check out Mick’s new gig.
This week’s question: Last month, Image publisher and creator Eric Stephenson delivered a speech at Comicspro looking at the history of the comics industry that concludes by blasting variant covers as being bad for the industry. Do you are agree?
Logan Polk: As a reader, I don’t care about variant covers in the slightest. As a collector (and Deadpool fan) I enjoy some of them immensely. The problem is that I can’t afford to enjoy them in my collection. Occasionally I’ll spring for one that I really dig, but it’s not often. The bigger problem? Thanks to Marvel’s (I’m singling them out since that’s the only one of the Big Two I ever give my money to) policy of tiered variants not only are most of them out of my price range, but my local comics shop can scarcely afford to get them either.
They’ve effectively created a system that falsely inflates sales, props up their incessant attempts to reinvent their properties and leaves their sole source of distribution floundering. It’s absolute insanity. So, if the choice were for me to occasionally be able to snag a cheeky Deadpool variant, or even a cute Skottie Young piece, or for my friend and only local comics distributor to be able to get the items his customers want without having to worry about ordering enough issues to hit some arbitrary number, I’ll take the latter. If comics are going to survive as a physical medium, the people that produce them have got to stop abusing the people that sell them.
Joe Gualtieri: Variants covers suck.
In theory, having multiple covers to pick from on a comic is
egalitarian, and leads Skottie Young fans to try everything Marvel publishes.
In practice, it’s awful. For those not in the know, variants basically come in
-free order variants where retailers can order all they want (I’ve been out of Diamond long to forget the official term for these).
-“order all” variants tied to your orders for something else (this is mostly a Marvel special)
Generally, people talk about the last of these when they talk about variants, but all three are worth discussing. “Free order” variants aren’t so bad, really. There’s no artificial scarcity, in theory readers could buy the cover of their choice. The downsides are the title taking up extra rack space and your poor retailer trying to figure out if he or she needs more of one cover than another. If these were the only variants, I don’t think anyone wuld much care.
The “order all” variants are a pain in the butt for your retailer. The way this works is, if your order of Deadpool #12 exceeds your order of another comic by a certain percentage, you can order all you want of the Skottie Young Deadpool Baby Variant for #12. Where it gets tricky is the book that Skottie Young incentive cover is tied to probably isn’t Deadpool #11, it could be Uncanny X-Men #1. Then next month, there’s a Skottie Young variant for Squirrel Girl #1 where it’s tied to your orders for Deadpool #12… and so and so forth, every month linking back to a different comic where Marvel was trying to jack up sales, in theory inflating the sales of something every month to keep those Skottie Young variants rolling in (I don’t mean to pick on Young, and many of those covers are cute, it’s just a series that’s been running for close to five years now). It can also be a pain for your poor retailer to have to do the math here, although I understand Diamond has recently started out rate stating what targets are for individual retailers.
Last but not least are the ratio variants, where a retailer orders so many copies of the main cover to get one ratio variant. Companies will also stack these up, so when you order 5000 copies of Dark Knight III #1, in addition to the 1:5000 Jim Lee sketch variant, you can get 50 copies of the 1:100 and so on down the line. Publisher justify these ratio variants by saying they help titles find their levels, but any cursory examination of sales charts reveals that’s a lie. Retailers order extra copies of titles to get variants, which are sold at premium and in short order the extra copies of the regular cover wind up in a dollar bin. Heck, it might even take that long; one retailer near me had Dark Knight III #1 for half price day of release. In way, this is good for people who just want to read comics and have the patience to wait for books to hit bargain bins, but it actually devalues the work the creators put into the comic itself and emphasizes a collector mentality where only the outside of the comic matters.
No comic better encapsulates this problem than Supergirl and the Legion of Super Heroes #23 by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson. I read that title when it was coming out, and when I saw the 1:10 Adam Hughes variant, I wanted one, and unusually for me, was willing to pay a small premium (it was, after all, only 1:10). Well, I never found a copy and moved on. The cover got reproduced in the trade. Flash forward to now, and there are people claiming this one of the most important comics of the last decade and copies easily fetch hundreds of dollars. I completely understand the comic is scarce, but so what? Original art is scarcer, and it’s possible build a nice collection of pages and sketches that cost less than high-end variant covers. That Dark Knight III Jim Lee sketch cover becomes particularly egregious. Those covers, with mediocre, boring Batman head sketches are commanding about $3000. Meanwhile, a much nicer vintage sketch of Psylocke by Lee sold for less than half of that. A quick search of reputable dealers turned up actual X-Men pages by Lee for less than $2000. That’s an extreme example, but it’s still generally true. And that “scarce” variant cover? The image is readily available online and trades usually reprint the associated variant covers, so really what are you paying for?
Mike Sterling: For the new Dark Knight III series,
there were an avalanche of
variant covers. The usual 1 in 10/1 in 25/1 in 50 etc. variants, the variant covers commissioned for specific retailers, the blank variant so you can take it to a convention and pay a comic artist to draw on it, and then, of course, there was the Original Sketch by Jim Lee variant. For retailers who ordered 5,000 copies of the regular cover of Dark Knight III #1, at a wholesale cost of well over $10,000, you would be able to order one copy of this variant upon which the co-publisher of DC Comics gifted his personal illustration.
A glance at completed eBay auctions for this very item, as of this writing, shows that it seems to sell in the high $3000s, occasionally cracking four grand. So, let’s assume the wholesale cost on those 5,000 comics was $10,000, for simplicity’s sake, even if that’s on the low side. You sell your sketch cover for $4,000, and so, just to break even, you have to sell another 1,000 copies of the regular Dark Knight III #1. And then if you sell those 1,000 copies, you have another 4,000 to try to unload. Now, I admit, for larger stores in big cities with extensive mail order clientele, they could possibly move this excess product. They can also make some bank on the 100 copies of the 1/50 variants they received, and so on. If that one eBay seller I saw can be believed, there are supposedly only 43 copies of the 1/5000 sketch variant in circulation. That means 215,000 copies of the regular cover for #1 were ordered to get that specific variant, and that doesn't include all the copies ordered by other shops that didn’t splurge for the 1/5000 variant. And it doesn’t include the dozens of store-specific variants that also required minimum purchases, and…well, you get the idea. (Ultimately, over 440,000 copies of #1 were produced.)
My prediction at the time was that there would be a flood of regular DKIII
#1s on eBay, selling for pennies on the dollar. A look just now (and it
was difficult just finding the regular #1 amongst all the variants) shows
I was a little off… there are copies selling for as much as one or two
This is all just secondary market stuff. For the average reader, who just wants to read DKIII (and there are a lot… there are plenty of people coming to my shop just for this series, and I can’t be the only retailer experiencing this), they don’t care about all that. For folks who are into the variants…well, some of them just like the alternate artwork, some want to invest or immediately flip the book online, or whatever. And whatever you want to do, however you want to interact with the hobby, hey, go for it.
But it’s a little troubling, this much excess. That’s a lot of dough tied up in one product, despite the fact that the comic is selling, a large amount of that product almost certainly is going to waste. Blown out on eBay, stashed away in boxes in the backroom, maybe even just straight-up recycled. (I’ll give you collectors a moment to recover from that onset of the vapors after reading that last one.) The regular covers served their purpose, the chaff you have to cast off in order to sell the variant cover wheat, which is a terrible metaphor but I hope you forgive me. And that’s money that goes into short term profits, which I absolutely will not blame anyone for pursuing in the current marketplace, but I wonder how much money went to DKIII that didn’t go for other items shops could have carried, that could have attracted readers that weren’t necessarily looking for Bat-comics. Now, if you’re a large shop going all-in on that sketch variant, you probably didn’t impact your other stock that much. But for small stores, that have to watch their budgets, bumping up your orders to that next plateau in order to get that next variant might mean having to order a copy or three less of something else.
And that’s great for Marvel and DC. They naturally want stores to spend less money on other products and more on theirs. That's just business.
The main purpose of variant covers is get retailers to order more copies of the book. Dark Knight III is the most extreme example of that in recent memory. Usually, however, it’s more a case of maybe a retailer deciding to order nine copies of something, seeing there’s a 1 in 10 variant cover, and bumping it up an extra copy to order the variant. Behold… two more copies sold!
Or there’s the “match or exceed previous orders” variants… “equal or beat
your orders on Variant Cover Man #1 with orders for Variant Cover Man #2, and you can order as many copies of Variant Cover Man: Variant Cover as you want.” Generally this means having to at the very least maintain or slowly increase your numbers over time in order to continue receiving the latest variants. (I cover that particular strategy on my own site in much greater detail.)
And then there’s the form of variant cover particularly favored by DC, in which retailers can freely order both the regular and the “themed” variant cover… that theme being a topic that all these freely-orderable variants feature during that specific month, such as “Batman's Anniversary” or “Harley Quinn” or “Lego” or so on. And there’s the problem with that… these variant covers can actively mislead the customer, as the themed illustrations have nothing to do with the contents. It was the Lego covers that drove this home, as disappointed customers in droves returned Lego-covered comics to the shelves after discovering the comics inside did not feature the expected Lego-ized heroes.
It’s not necessarily all negative. Different cover images may appeal to different customers’ tastes, and if one cover for a certain comic doesn’t catch a person’s eye, maybe that comic’s other cover(s) will. Plus, ordering a few extra copies of a title to get the incentive 1-in-whatever-number variant could mean having more copies around on the shelves rather than selling out right away, allowing for more potential sales. And, if that variant sells at a premium price, it helps subsidize the cost of the extras.
In the long run, though, it’s a sales crutch to entice retailers to bump up numbers, as well as being a wee bit rough to to deal with at ordering time. It’s hard enough, even with months and months and years of sales reports to go by, to try to order the right number of comics that you’re at least partially guesstimating will sell two or three months down the road to regular readers. Adding “huh, I wonder if anyone two months from now will want any of these variants” to the equation just pads the chore. I mean, as a retailer, variants can be a good sales tool, and they do attract attention, but I can’t help but wonder if the energy expended on producing, retailing, and buying variant covers couldn’t be put to better use in this industry. It’s a short term patch to the ongoing problem of cash flow in the comics business, but it’s not the solution.
It Takes A Villain is TWC’s
bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the
starring role; brought to you by your favorite emotionally disturbed
crime lord, Mick Martin.
titles. Especially when it comes to comics, I will give something a
try just because I like the title. I think it’s because, particularly
with the still-super-hero-dominated medium, I’m used to very specific kinds of titles. Just a name. Batman.
Or an adjective and a name. Amazing Spider-Man.
When you get something that’s even just a little off-kilter, I get
excited. I Killed Adolf Hitler
was my first Jason graphic novel likely because of title. It’s not
likely but a goddamn fact that the only reason I bothered to buy the
first issue of Vengeance of the Moon Knight
was the title. I was actually a little intrigued by all the long
titles that sprung up in DC’s line after Infinite Crisis like
Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes and
Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters.
I suspect, is one of the reasons why I’ve been chomping at the bit to
check out the 5 issue mini-series My Name Is Holocaust
ever since I started this column. I knew nothing about it. I had
taken a break from comics in the mid-nineties so, other than a few
stray issues of Icon and
Hardware, I hadn’t
read any Milestone comics. I’d never read, or heard of, Blood
Syndicate and so didn’t know My
Name Is Holocaust was a spin-off
of that series. I was browsing through a comics merchant website, saw
the title My Name Is Holocaust,
correctly assumed a lead with the name Holocaust wasn’t a good guy,
and was instantly giddy at the chance to review a super-villain comic
with a slightly nonstandard title because that’s the kind of
embarrassing shit that makes me giddy.
Leonard Smalls, aka Holocaust, boasts
super strength and explosive fire powers; and he wants to be the king
of crime in Dakota City. For that to happen, he needs a seat the the
Coalition’s table. With help from his super-powered underlings Tarmak
and the cyborg Bad Betty, Holocaust takes out Coalition members
one-by-one. He plans to either force them into giving him his
rightful place at the table, or burning their crooked organization to
the ground and owning crime in Dakota all by himself.
My Name Is Holocaust is good, but not great. But the seeds are there and the main thing that stops it from reaching its full potential is its connection to the Milestone continuity.
years ago I reviewed the trade reprint of Mark Waid’s Empire
for Comic Book Galaxy. It was
the series that got me thinking about super-villain comics
because it occurred to me Empire was
the first comic I’d read in which a super-villain was the protagonist
and yet the writer didn’t pull any tricks to gain reader sympathy. He
didn’t gut the villain by turning him into a good guy. He didn’t have
the villain forced into heroics like Suicide Squad,
Loki: Agent of Asgard or
Brian K. Vaughan’s Mystique.
Nor did he keep the villain a bad guy, but pit him against someone
who was somehow more evil
like Mark Millar’s Wanted.
Waid kept his protagonist, Golgoth, a sonofabitch from
cover-to-cover. And we rooted for him every step of the way.
five years earlier, My Name Is Holocaust is
not that different from Empire.
Like Golgoth, Holocaust is remorseless. We are given glimpses of his
humanity as he’s wracked with visions of his abused past, but there’s
never any hint that this guy plans on joining the side of the angels.
Holocaust charges into everything like a bull and has none of
Golgoth’s intellect, but his will is no less indomitable. He won’t
stop until he gets everything he wants. Like Golgoth, Holocaust
eventually does get
everything he wants and just as was the case in Empire,
once Holocaust finally achieves his goals, it’s clear he knows it
will never be enough for him. And just as Empire ends
with one of Golgoth’s lieutenants escaping his grasp and joining the
resistance against him, My Name Is Holocaust ends
with the cyborg Bad Betty planning on eventually murdering Holocaust
for the Shadow Cabinet.
My Name Is Holocaust’s
biggest weaknesses lie in its differences with Empire.
you don’t like Holocaust and you don’t sympathize with him. He’s
abusive, murderous, insecure, and doesn’t seem particularly bright.
You don’t ever really want him to win; not when he’s fighting the
cops, not even when he’s fighting other criminals. When the captive
Juniper holds a shard of broken glass over the unconscious Holocaust
but doesn’t kill him
with it, you can’t help but hate her a little for it.
crazy-as-shit determination is his only redeeming quality and the
only thing that even comes close to making him sympathetic. When he
rallies from almost utter defeat at the has-been hero Tower’s hands in the fourth
issue, you have to admire him for it a little.
Empire enjoyed a
freedom from any pre-established fictional continuity, whereas My
Name Is Holocaust assumes all of
its readers are thoroughly versed in Milestone’s narrative tapestry.
If you read nothing of Milestone but this mini-series you will learn
nothing about Holocaust’s connection with Blood Syndicate. You won’t
learn how he got his powers, or how Tarmak or Bad Betty got theirs.
You won’t even know the organization that Bad Betty is secretly
working for (I only know because of Wikipedia). You will, in fact, be
confused in the fourth issue when Holocaust is able to hurt the
seemingly invulnerable Tower with his fists because up until that
point the only super-power Holocaust displays is his unpredictable
A lot of the drama
falls short if you aren’t already invested. Holocaust and Juniper –
the daughter of the first crime lord Holocaust murders – have a
strange, complex relationship. Juniper constantly refers to herself
as being just as bad as Holocaust, but if all you know about her is in this
mini-series, all she’s ever done is watch her father get murdered and
then get kidnapped. If she’s got a lot of “red” in her “ledger,”
I sure don’t know about it and don’t even get hints about what it
Perhaps the worst
thing is that the series ends with such a weak sigh. I had to keep
checking the other side of the last page – only to find reader
letters – because I was convinced that last panel couldn’t be the
end; that maybe the copy I bought was missing a page. It feels like
writer Ivan Velez, Jr. just kind of figured the story would continue
in other comics, so why bother giving a satisfying ending?
My Name Is Holocaust wasn’t
without promise. Given a few more issues and maybe paying more
attention to the Milestone-uninitiated; Velez, penciller Tommy Lee
Edwards, and the rest of the creative team could’ve – and likely
would’ve – told a much more riveting story. As it is, the mini was
impressive enough to spark my interest in other Milestone titles;
opening up an entirely new world of super guy continuity for me, my
fat ass, and my thinning wallet.
This week’s question: What’s your favorite anniversary issue?
Tim Durkee: I’m glad that this question was given an extra week. I knew I could catch up with my reading and two anniversary issues would be a part of that. First off, I’m very far behind, so please don’t chuckle too loud when tell you I just finished Amazing Spider-Man # 690-700 including every point one and gimmick book in between. For all purposes issue 692 is the 50th anniversary issue, but that was overshadowed by the hype surrounding 700. The cat has been out of the bag for several years now, the question would have it been worth the cover price when first released?
I hate when a character dies in a book, not because my favorite hero or villain has perished, but because they never last. Give it a few months, maybe a year and they are back so I was I was in hurry as I knew what to expect. Did ASM 700 deliver to a reader who is very skeptical of deaths, anniversaries, and gimmicks? It sure did!
For a moment I actually thought this was it, the last story. No more Parker. The way the letter columns were filled it was more like a eulogy page rather that a celebration of one of the greatest super-heroes created. And I am reading this, believing this, knowing what happened. That’s what we call darn good writing, true believers! Now I’m on to Superior Spider-Man, which I stayed away from initially. I’ve never been known to have a favorite anniversary issue, until today.
Mike Sterling: Very early on in my comic collecting
endeavors, I always went out of my way to pick up “special” issues. Extra-sized anniversary editions or annuals
or the large treasury editions, even if they were from series or featuring
characters I didn’t normally follow. There was just something especially
enticing about these, even if the higher pricetags bit into my
funnybook-buying budget. And, in the late ‘70s/early '80s, there was no
shortage of fine books to choose from: Flash #300, detailing the origins
of all the Rogues, Detective Comics #500, a monster of a comic
featuring stories starring not just Batman, but several other characters
featuring throughout the series’ long run.
And then there was Justice League of America #200 from 1982.
A great premise: the founding members of the League have gone out of
control, and it’s up to their latter-day teammates to bring them down.
A great story structure: each confrontation is divided into its own short chapter, including one splash page punctuating the conflict between the characters.
A great collection of artists: each chapter is illustrated either by the artist most strongly associated with the characters involved (such as the Flash versus the Elongated Man by Carmine Infantino, or the Atom versus Green Lantern by Gil Kane), or by an artist that is most perfectly suited to said characters (such as Green Arrow and Black Canary versus Batman as drawn by Brian Bolland). The artwork for the framing and connective sequences is by George Pérez, who was then nearing the end of his run as the regular Justice League artist.
The story, by Gerry Conway, very nicely showcases each major character from the title’s history, as well as tying the plot into the team's origins. It is, in effect, a sequel to Justice League of America #9 (1962), where the League’s origin was initially told. Conway also contributes an extensive text history of the series on the inside front and back covers.
This is 72 adless pages of superhero perfection, presenting the almost Platonic ideal of how each character should be treated. Sure, maybe Pérez isn’t quite as polished here as he would become in short order, but there’s no denying his work’s power and enthusiasm. He certainly holds his own with the other featured artists. In addition to Bolland, Kane and Infantino, there’s Jim Aparo, and Dick Giordano, and Joe Kubert, and Brett Breeding, and more. If anyone’s taking suggestions for one of those giant tomes that features high-quality scans of original art, I nominate this book for the treatment.
Justice League of America #200 is the comic I think of when I think of superhero comics. It’s the one that reminds me of why I became interested in superhero comics in the first place. Not that it was my first superhero comic, by any means, but it still remains, at least to the part of me that still remembers that youthful thrill of seeing the week’s new arrivals on the newsstand racks, the best.
Scott Cederlund: My Legion of Super-Heroes fandom started out sporadically. I probably read more reprints of older Legion stories in Adventure Comics or even the old Treasury Editions. There’s one Treasury Edition that reprinted a Mordru story that’s still one of my favorite comic stories. Those old Silver-Age stories were hokey but all of those super-powered kids running in those old fashioned costumes held a wonderful charm over me. That’s probably why I had a problem with some of the more modern (at least modern circa 1983) Legion stories. The characters kind of seemed familiar but with all of their updated, Bronze Age costumes, my mind couldn’t connect those old Legion stories to the current Legion stories.
Legion of Super-Heroes #300 is a suspect anniversary issue because the series continued the numbering of the original Superboy series after it became Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes with issue #197. So maybe the 300th issue of Legion of Super-Heroes is a bit of a stretch but it provided the link for me between the Legion I knew from those old reprints and the modern day Legion as it contained a number of imaginary stories about possible timelines for the Legion, all written by Paul Levitz and drawn by a number of different artists.
Levitz’s story touched on all of the eras of the Legion, all the way back to it’s earliest and corniest days in the late 1950s and 1960s, through the Bronze Age cynicism of the 1970s and all the way through the Keith Giffen technological utopia of the 1980s. These stories were “what ifs,” looking at the decisions that the Legion had made through those years and how they could have been different. And Levitz even framed it through the perspective of the brother of the late Ferro Lad. All of these maybes and could-have-been were told from the point of view of one of the Legion’s first and greatest tragedies.
There’s only a handful of comics from 1983 (or even before that) that I can actually remember buying and reading for the first time. I got the issue from a shop called All American Comics in Evergreen Park, Il, on a summer night. And I read the comic in the lobby of the Christ Medical Center on 95th Street. My father had taken me to the comic shop as a mild bribe before going to visit my grandmother in the hospital. I can remember the lighting still being dim in the waiting area while my father went up to my grandma’s room. I probably went up to her room for a little bit but I was probably quickly allowed to go down to the lobby to read my comics while my dad spent time with his mother.
The comic means as much to me about the contents of it as it does about the summer of 1983 when my grandmother died of cancer. When the question was posed about anniversary issues for this column, I immediately thought of this issue but it took a while to sink in about what the comic means to me and why I still have it in my collection. The comic is full of possibilities and things that never happened in the Legion continuity, but they all could have happened if the writer and artists had made different choices along the ways. For this anniversary issue, Paul Levitz tapped into some of that potential that exists in all comics within the boundaries of continuity.
Joe Gualtieri: This week’s question is borderline impossible. It would have been tough enough if we could pick five, but one anniversary issue? Especially as someone who was a young teen during the prime years of anniversary mania (Marvel made a way bigger deal about the thirtieth anniversaries of their various superheroes than they did the fiftieth), this felt like a nigh-impossible task. Outside of material reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (“To Kill a Legend” from Detective Comics #500 is a contender here), my first anniversary issue was likely Detectve #627, celebrating Batman’s 600th appearance in the title (yes, it’s actually his 601st, an error pointed by many letter writers in subsequent issues). It reprinted the very first Batman story, “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate” by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, and a retelling of the story, “The Cry of the Night is- ‘Kill’”, from #387 by Mike Friederich, Bob Brown, and Joe Giella. It also contained two new reinterpretations of that first story by essentially the then-contemporary teams on both Detective and Batman: Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo, Mike DeCarlo, and Adrienne Roy, and Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle, Steve Mitchell, and Roy. The Grant/Breyfogle tale was a little gruesome for my tastes at the time, but getting four variations, retold over time, has always left an impression on me as a great way to do an anniversary issue.
My favorite though? In the end, it comes down to two issues,
both from the same storyline, Spectacular Spider-Man #189 (the first of
four issues celebrating Spider-Man’s thirtieth anniversary in 1992, each with a
hologram on the cover, because 1992) and #200. My first Spider-Man comics were Amazing
#347 (Venom!) and Spectacular #175 (Doc Ock!), both purchased from
Robinson’s Convenience Store on the same day because they had villains I liked from Marvel
trading cards. Funnily enough, I came in as a classic creator left, as Spectacular
#175 wrapped up Gerry Conway’s final Spider-Man story-arc (though it was written
by David Michelinie). The next two issues were fill-ins by some guy named Kurt
Busiek, and then in #178, J.M. DeMatteis’s run started with a sequel to his
already legendary Kraven’s Last Hunt, with Sal Buscema on art. Despite
not having read that story, his run worked really for me, in part because the
story was something of a thematic sequel, focusing on Harry Osborn and his
struggles with his father’s legacy as the Green Goblin. By the end of that
initial arc, Harry had fallen to his worse impulses, becoming a villain
After a detour involving the Vulture, DeMatteis brought Harry back in #189 for “The Osborn Legacy.” Deranged after using his father’s super-strength formula, Harry kidnaps his own family and starts psychologically torturing Spider-Man. At the end of the issue, Spidey actually turns Harry over to the authorities, despite the threat of Harry revealing his secret identity as Peter Parker. Over the next year, Harry would occasionally show that he could still reach out from prison, but he was released in #199. The next issue, “Best of Enemies!” sees Harry up his war against Spider-Man, his family struggling to deal with his instability and Harry fighting himself, caught between wanting to do what his evil father would want and his long friendship with Parker. The issue is tense, and features one of probably only two scenes returning to the scene of Gwen Stacy’s death that is actually any good, as Harry takes Mary Jane Parker there to assure her he will not hurt her. In the end, Peter and Harry come to blows, Harry poisons Peter and leaves him to die in a death trap before Mary Jane talks him into going back. Then the super strength formula he used a year earlier turns to poison and kills him (a simple metaphor, but beautifully done, and perfect for the genre). Harry Osborn’s death is absolutely stunning, a scene so well done by Buscema that DeMatteis deviated from his original plans and left the final pages silent.
Spectacular Spider-Man #200 is everything an anniversary issue should be: it wraps up the current creative team’s story-lines, but beyond that it truly builds on the history of the characters involved. “Best of Enemies” gets its impact not just from the artistry of DeMatteis and Buscema, but from everyone who came before on the Spider-Man comics. It’s a story that demands a mature Spider-Man, and is inconceivable without him being married to Mary Jane. Marvel has, inexplicably, just reprinted parts of it, and the only way that makes sense to me as vindictiveness over how it shows how wrong nearly everything the company has tried to with the character since has been, as Marvel’s flailed about, trying to de-age him, believing kids couldn’t relate to an older, married Spider-Man. *Ahem* Anyway, it also has a foil cover, and being 11 in 1992, I confess to having a weakness for those when they’re well done.
I’ve been a fan of Jamal Igle’s since his short-lived (but revived last year) series Venture with Jay Faeber back in 2003. His work can have the look of the George Perez school, but his design sense always feels cleaner, and a little less noodley. These days, he’s best known for a classic run on Supergirl with Sterling Gates which helped inspire the current TV series. A few years ago, Igle kickstarted Molly Danger, which he also wrote. The preview was fun; a super-strong alien who perpetually looks like a ten-year old girl takes on a giant mecha piloted by a brain-in-a-robot-body-type villain. It looked fun, and great for an underserved audience (one we’ve heard a lot more about in the years since, as girls want their Black Widow, Gamora, and Rey toys). For whatever reason, I decided to pass on backing it, but ordered a copy when Action Lab picked it up for a mass release. Unfortunately, it stayed in my “to read” pile for, well, a couple of years. I wish I had actually read it sooner, at least so I could have backed the second Kickstarter (more Molly Danger is due this summer).
Molly Danger is better and more interesting comic than the impression created by the preview. Yes, it is entirely appropriate for all ages and features a protagonist perfect for young female readers. However, it does not shy away from the potentially darker implications of its scenario (but crucially, does not indulge in them). DART, the organization Molly works with, is as concerned about protecting people from Molly as the menaces she fights. As a result, Molly’s kept isolated and alone, without any meaningful interactions. Austin Briggs, who joins DART midway through the comic after helping Molly in the opening sequence, almost immediately starts breaking the group’s rules, eating with her and even bringing her home to meet his stepson, Brian. He’s a huge fan and loves meeting his idol, she loves meeting someone her own “age.” But then Molly comes back and sees him again. The scene is, on the surface, a pleasant one between the characters with Molly expressing how alone she feels, but it also subtly suggests that the DART commander could be right about her, as there’s an implication of menace in Molly being able to completely control her relationship with Brian. It’s really skillfully done, perfectly staying on a line that keeps the book appropriate for younger readers yet interesting for older ones. Obviously, Igle’s working with a Superman-type in Molly, but he alters the formula in unique and interesting ways. I won’t let the next volume lie around for two years.
– Joe Gualtieri
This week’s question: What’s your favorite romance in comics?
Logan Polk: Thanos is one of my favorite characters. I think he’s endlessly compelling when handled right, and a big part of that is his love life. So, my favorite romance in all of comics has to be Thanos and Death. Okay, it’s more of an obsessive and unrequited love than an actual romance, but it’s a story that I’ve followed for most of my comics reading life, and one I still find completely fascinating. To want the approval and affection of someone so much that you would seek godhood and attempt to wipe entire portions of the galaxy out of existence? That’s an epic love story. What can I say, I’ve always been a fan of the bad guys just as much (or more) than the good guys.
Tim Durkee: Even though it is not as popular as his first fling with the human Lois Lane, I enjoy the chemistry between Superman and Wonder Woman. I was first introduced to their relationship with the Kingdom Come miniseries, an Elseworlds tale. That is a story that does not take place in the current time frame of stories in the DC Universe. I’m not sure if he was seeing the Amazon on the side and decided to go full-time after Lois Lane’s death, sorry for the spoiler. They both are also an item in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight universe. More spoilers: Superman and WW have a child together and another on the way. The impression is that there was still a relationship between Clark and Lois before Lois’s death. I can understand Lois being all gaga over the Man of Steel, I just can’t see him seeing any interest in her, so having him with the most powerful woman in the DCU makes more sense to me. Now, the new 52 universe has them together, so I’m told. I have read some reviews about them together. Some love hate, more hate it. I am curious what direction the DCU films will take with the introduction of Wonder Woman.
Mike Sterling: I never really paid much attention to romance
in comics when I was younger. Generally, that was for good reason; in most of the superhero comics, it wasn’t so much “romance” as “plot
point” or “character description.” You know, “Lois is
Superman’s girlfriend” or “Iris is Flash’s wife” or
whatever. Love interests existed to be threatened by villains, or to be
nosy about secret identities, or to be pined over, or whathaveyou. It was
a technical point, not an emotional connection.
So, as will come as no surprise to most of you who are familiar with my online shenanigans, it was the romance that popped up in, of all places, Swamp Thing that caught me off guard.
Yes, Swamp Thing, the comic about a monster who fights other monsters while hangin’ out with pals who are related to monsters or are monsters themselves. That’s where a comic book romance finally hit home with me, and yeah yeah make your jokes, but it was one of the most totally out-of-nowhere-but-yeah-of-COURSE moments I’d ever read in a comic at that point. I’m talking about Saga of Swamp Thing #34 (March 1985) by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben, where Abby tells Swamp Thing of her feelings for him, exclaiming “how could you love me?” Swampy’s response: “Deeply…silently…and…for too many…years.”
That pair of awkward admissions between a couple of characters I’ve been reading about for so long…that was the sort of honest emotion that’s not present in the eternal running-in-place of Superman and Lois, or most other superhero books. Particularly for someone like me, who’d been invested in these characters and was suddenly blindsided by this step forward, a change in the status quo in a storytelling industry that doesn’t like changes in the status quo.
Naturally, the relationship was fuel for melodrama, as this is comics, after all. Abby getting up to some plant-lovin’ becoming fodder for tabloid journalists, losing her job as a result, etc. etc. – all part and parcel of the soap opera style of funnybook storytelling, but through everything, Swamp Thing and Abby felt like an actual, and oddly normal (or as normal as they could manage) couple.
It didn’t last, sadly. Now, a couple of Swamp Thing series and a line-wide reboot of the shared DC universe later, Swamp Thing and Abby's life together is no longer at the center of Swampy’s adventures. It's nice, though, to recall a time when I could be genuinely surprised at a turn of events in a comic book. And not the usual "THIS ISSUE - SOMEBODY DIES!“ type of nonsense that’s no longer really working anyway - but just a couple of characters that you’ve read about for several years, quietly and shyly admitting their feelings to each other.
Joe Gualtieri: Growing up, I was the weirdo in your group of comic-loving
friends, the one with really weird taste. You see, I vastly preferred Cyclops
(Scott Summers) to Wolverine.
As the kid in your class who literally would remind the teacher to give the class homework, I suspect this is part of why Scott Summers appealed to me, along with the hyper-competence. I suspect it’s also worth noting that my first X-title was X-Factor #65, and I started regularly reading with X-Men #1, so more than five years after the ugliness with Madelyne Pryor occurred, and a couple years after Pryor was firmly established as a clone of Jean Grey created by Sinister, so that controversy was essentially a settled matter when I began reading. So I was Cyclops fan, and I was really into his relationship with Jean Grey. When John Byrne and Fabian Nicieza teased an affair with Psylocke, I didn’t take it seriously as storyline (nor, rereading those issues, should I have. There’s nothing there, really). Years later though, when Stephen T. Seagle hinted at real cracks in their relationship, I was apoplectic, and wanted him off the comic, which happened not long after, and after a few terrible issue by Alan Davis, I dropped the X-Men comics for the first time in about eight years. I soon started buying them again, as Davis finally did “The Twelve”, a story the X-books had teased since the late 80s. That arc ended with Cyclops apparently dying after being possessed by the soul of Apocalypse (this is all actually relevant). That was basically it for Davis, as Chris Claremont returned to the X-title for a disastrous run both creatively and n terms of sales. Marvel’s Editor in Chief Bob Harras was basically fired over it, he was replaced by Joe Quesada, who brought in Grant Morrison to revitalize the X-franchise. Oh, and Scott Summers returned from the dead prior to Morrison’s run starting in New X-Men #114.
Morrison’s run infamously begins with the line, “Wolverine. You can probably stop doing that now” foreshadowing how the series would focus on the idea of change and nowhere would Morrison affect more change than in the character of Cyclops. Following his resurrection, Summers’s marriage to Jean Grey is in tatters, the two not having touched each other for five months. Cue Emma Frost joining the team. She almost immediately hits on Summers, and Morrison leaves the result of her come-on ambiguous at first. Gradually, it’s revealed that the pair involved, but only psychically, as a sort of sexual therapy for Cyclops. Jean Grey-Summers learns about it at the end of “Riot at Xaviers”, and the fallout carries into the first part of “Murder at the Mansion”. To Jean, the affair is just as real even if it’s happening on the psychic plane, and it soon turns out that despite her detached demeanor, Frost has real feelings for Summers. The reveal comes on one of my all-time favorite pages (drawn by Phil Jimenez) as she break down in Wolverine’s arms, the panel layout narrows until she has to ask, “Why did I have to fall in love with Scott Bloody Summers?”
The relationship hits the back-burner for the series from there until the final arc, “Here Comes Tomorrow” (the title an allusion to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake), a new take on “Days of Future Past” where the key moment is Summers walking away from Frost at Grey’s grave (she died at the end of the previous arc). Jean Grey, in a superhero afterlife, heals reality, urging “Live. Scott.” Which prompts him to embrace Frost, after answering her question, “Don’t you want to inherit the Earth” with “I… yes.” The “yes” and scenario reads as a gender-flipped allusion to Molly Blooms long soliloquy that closes Joyce’s Ulysses:
[…]how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.
As the Blooms do not have a perfect relationship, but love each other, the allusion suggests that rather than the story-book, “perfect” romance of Scott Summers and Jean Grey, Summers and Emma Frost will have a more realistic and messier relationship. Subsequent comics certainly bore this out and while the relationship seems to have run its course (plus Cyclops is dead again), the beginnings of their relationship make it my favorite in comics.
It Takes A Villain is TWC’s bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role; brought to you by the lusty temptress of sinful delight, Mick Martin.
It’s likely I never would’ve heard of Breathtaker if I hadn’t started writing It Takes A Villain. When I first conceived the column, I wanted to make sure I knew about as many villain-led titles as possible. I compiled a list by going through an online comic shop and scanning every single title. Breathtaker’s title probably wouldn’t have grabbed my attention if it wasn’t a DC comic. Since it was DC, right away, I knew it had to be either a villain comic or a Vertigo title. Once I read the description of the series – a woman who kills men with sex is pursued by a super-hero named The Man – I felt lucky to have stumbled upon such an intriguing sounding villain-led title, though I was also a little hesitant. The description said the comic was released in 1990. If the story was really as interesting as it sounded and it came out that long ago, why the hell hadn’t I heard of it? Still, precisely because I knew nothing about the series beside its title put it high on the list of comics I was excited to read for It Takes A Villain. A quick search on Amazon revealed that DC was planning to release a trade collection of the comic in late 2015. Unfortunately, those plans were scrapped. But I was curious enough to do something I hadn’t done in a very long time: I doled out the money for the single back-issues, and I don’t regret a penny lost.
I still can’t answer the question of why I had never heard of it. Maybe because the protagonist was female, maybe because without the Vertigo imprint comics like this fell through the cracks. I don’t know. Regardless, Breathtaker is wonderful and deserves to be talked about and written about more. After reading it, though, I actually questioned whether or not it really belonged in It Takes A Villain. This is a column that’s not just about comics in which villains are the protagonists, but super-villains from the super-hero genre. That’s why you won’t be seeing any reviews of Lucifer or Darth Vader here. But for some very specific reasons, Breathtaker not only fits, but shines a light on something I’m seeing more and more in super-villain comics.
Not to mention, I paid for the damn comics and they’re good, so whatever. I’m writing about them.
Written by Mark Wheatley and beautifully rendered by Marc Hempel and Kathryn Mayer, Breathtaker tells us the story of Chase Darrow: a woman whose love is fatal. The deaths aren’t intentional. Chase doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but her victims’ love is just as much a drug to her as her magnetism is irresistible to them. Her love doesn’t kill instantly, but in increments, and the story opens on the final moments of Chase’s relationship with the rich Paul. Though only in his mid-fifties, Paul looks as wrinkled and spent as a man in his nineties, and all it takes is one kiss from Chase to kill him. Moments after his death, Paul’s grown son Charlie finds Chase. She tells him what happened, and because he is just as spellbound by Chase as everyone else, his only concern is the trauma she’s been through.
Chase goes on the run and soon the violent super-hero The Man is after her. Under fire for thoughtlessly killing innocent civilians while chasing criminals, government agent The Man is desperate for some good PR. Chase’s growing trail of bodies is music to The Man’s ears. He eventually captures Chase, but falls victim to the same yearning as all of Chase’s men. Eventually a group of men related to Chase’s former lovers – men who now all want to be her lovers – find Paul’s son Charlie and hunt for Chase to save her from the authorities.
Everywhere Chase goes, she tries to avoid being the flame that draws in doomed moths, but she can’t help it. Even animals are drawn to her. When Chase helps an elk in the woods whose antlers are caught in a tree’s branches, the elk wants to be with Chase as much as any human man. Chase cannot stop men from wanting her or stop herself from needing them.
When I first read the series description, I was expecting Chase to be much more deliberate. I kept thinking of the earthbound goddess in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods who literally devours men with her vagina during sex. But while men can’t resist Chase, she’s no temptress. She doesn’t kill men for money, for power, or for kicks. She needs sex to survive. Without it, she quickly ages and, presumably, dies. But she tries to control it. In fact, she doesn’t kill all of her victims. If she only has sex with a man once or a couple of times, they survive, but younger men suddenly find themselves with heads of white hair or even bald. Yet most of those who survive wouldn’t call themselves victims.
This is why I considered not reviewing Breathtaker for this column. Could I really call Chase a super-villain? Sure, she has powers. Sure, she’s got a bonafide super-hero on her tail, but a super-villain? Chase is as much a victim of her situation as any of her men. She’s riddled with guilt and at one point tries to commit suicide because of it. You could even argue Chase is more of a victim than the men. At least she tries to fight her urges and avoid hurting anyone, while the men throw themselves at her without giving a single damn about the consequences. The trucker Lou that Chase meets at the end of the first issue gladly hands over the keys to his truck when he learns the law is after her. Even though he’s got two kids to look after, moments after Chase drives away Lou whips out a revolver and is ready to fire on a pursuing police car; holstering only when sees it’s actually an ambulance.
But I include Breathtaker because, among other reasons, it brings to a head something that seems to be a recurring theme in these super-villain comics I’m reading: addiction.
Chase is addicted to contact with men just as the men become addicted to contact with her. They know she’s killing them and don’t care, just as an addict will knowingly race towards the edge of the cliff. In the very beginning of Breathtaker, Chase sounds like an addict fooling herself about who’s in control. “I can control my need,” she says. “I can pace my need.” And then two pages later her lover is dead.
There is a recurring theme of devouring and overeating in Breathtaker. The Man berates his handler for interrupting him during breakfast. The dedicated but sympathetic Detective Cob who pursues Chase is constantly eating though he’s as thin as a board. At a crime scene, Cob is devouring a burger and asking for seconds. When he meets with the mob of wanna-be-Chase-lovers he inhales a pizza. When Chase stops at the diner where she meets Lou the trucker, there’s a veritable kitchen worth of spent plates, bowls, saucers, and glasses at Chase’s table.
Sounds kind of familiar? Maybe like a guy floating through space and devouring entire planets because, you know, he just has to? To survive?
When I wrote about Superior Spider-Man, I mentioned addiction, and the more I read these villain-led comics and think about the implications of who these characters are and what they do, the more the word “addiction” springs up. It could be projection, I’ll admit that. I have my own addictions. I wrote about that a bit in my Superior Spider-Man column. Addiction is on my mind a lot so it could very well be that I’m just looking at these comics through that lens and naturally see exactly what I want or need or just plain expect to see.
But I don’t think it’s that. Or, if I am projecting, then at most I’m turning up the volume on something that really is there, but maybe doesn’t deserve as much attention as I give it (but it does).
I can’t say I’ve become some kind of expert on super-villain comics. There’s still so much to read and I’m having a ball reading it and writing about it. But if there is any general comment I can make at this point about super-villain comics, it’s that it seems like the central struggle of the super-villain-led comic is the struggle of men and women doing shit that just doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
I’m not saying it’s not believable, mind you. I’m not saying it’s bad writing, no. I’m saying these characters, super-villains, are mostly smart people who make stupid choices, who act against common sense and their own self-interest. You can call it addiction or you can call it obsession. You could just call it insanity. Regardless, it all boils down to men and women who go to unbelievable lengths for stupid and mostly unattainable goals, and for the most part both the efforts toward those goals and even the unlikely realization of those goals will only make their lives suck more.
Just looking at some the titles I’ve written about so far, there’s the Suicide Squad who risk their lives for a woman known for manipulation and lies – who they know from experience will likely never give them the clemency she promises – instead of using their super powers and amazing talents to break the hell out of prison (which every other super-villain seems to be able to do pretty frequently). There’s Astro City’s Steeljack who keeps being drawn back to his criminal roots through plain old habit. There’s the Doctor Octopus of Superior Spider-Man who has finally defeated Spider-Man in every conceivable manner, but actually imprisons himself in Parker’s body and life, and can never be happy with his victory. There’s the Maestro of Future Imperfect who risks all and loses it in attempt to unseat a god. There’s the Penguin protected by wealth and power, almost in the arms of a good woman who impossibly loves him, who throws it all away just to get back at the memory of children who bullied a lonely, ugly child.
No, there’s nothing unbelievable about these people beyond their silly titles and their outfits and their powers. That they rush towards defeat and ruin with eyes wide open is not difficult to believe. We have no Penguins and no Doctor Dooms but we eat ourselves to death, drink ourselves to death, drug ourselves to death, and fuck ourselves to death. We are crushed in stampedes for Black Friday deals. We fly through windshields so we can check Facebook on the highway.
This is why these super-villain comics are so important to me. I love super-heroes, but they don’t happen. They make more sense, but they don’t happen. But what super-villains experience is what we experience in our culture. Futile struggles for worthless treasures. I can’t relate to some caped asshole who spends all his day thinking about what’s the more righter thing to do golly gosh darn it. Sure, I’ve had my moral conflicts, we all have, but if I’m honest then I know that more often than I ask myself whether or not what I’m doing is right, I’m asking myself whether or not what I’m doing makes any damn sense. And the answer usually, of course, is “No, Mick. No it does not.” When my apartment is filthy and my clothes are all dirty and my cats’ litter box looks like a rock garden and my phone’s voice mail seems to only exist for the sake of bill collectors; and because of all this I plan a productive evening tackling my issues; and I stop at a grocery store on the way home from work and buy a bowling ball-sized bag of peanut butter M and Ms and spend the entire night prone on my couch, shoving sugar in my face and binge-watching Parks & Recreation; I’m not worried about whether or not I did the morally right thing. I’m worried about the fact that I know I have a respectable IQ yet everything I do is so goddamn stupid that I should be checking my knuckles for drag marks.
The men of Breathtaker throw themselves at Chase even though for most of them it will only mean their deaths. They fall in love with her in seconds. Detective Cob stands uselessly in the way of The Man to protect Chase, one of his many snacks still clutched in his hands. The Man is shot and almost killed pursuing Chase, but he keeps going, even when one of his legs looks like nothing but chewed up bone.
I’m going to keep reading these super-villain comics because they have something to teach me. About why you and me act against our own good. About why I have to go to meetings full of strangers to stop myself from doing things that hurt me. About why I do things that make no goddamn sense.
I’m writing this at 2:30 in the morning. For free.
Captain Marvel #1 by Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters, Kris Anka, and Matthew Wilson
A solid first issue that does a good job of establishing Carol Danvers’s new status quo as head of the new version of Alpha Flight, which is apparently the new version of SWORD. The art by Anka and Wilson is crisp and clean; this is a nice looking book, which I could not say about the title when it launched in 2012 with Dexter Soy as the artist. If there’s a flaw here, it’s a tendency by Fazekas and Butters to not introduce the supporting players. Aurora and Sasquatch are called out in identifier captions, but there’s nothing else about them. Abigail Brand and Puck receive more prominent roles, but it feels like key information is missing for new readers, particularly that Puck’s small stature is the result of a mystical curse, when he complains how much pain he’s in due to his size. Still, those concerns aside this is a solid and fun book.
Clean Room #2-4 by Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunter, and Quinton Winter
I enjoyed the first issue of Clean Room, but it felt like it didn’t go much beyond the idea of a comic examining the cultural footprint of Scientology. The second issue is a superb horror comic and the fourth in particular feels like it expands the title beyond the Scientology box. This is very close to becoming DC’s best comic.
Citizen Jack #1 by Sam Humphries, Tommy Patterson, and Jon Alderink
We all have our pet peeves and one of mine is when the first issue of a comic is basically just a dramatized version of the solicitation copy. I mean, okay, the solicitation probably didn’t mention Cricket, the dolphin political pundit, but if you’re selling your comic with the premise that it’s about a politician selling his soul to the devil to get elected president, don’t end your first issue with him selling his soul. Let me put it another way, if this comic was published by Valiant, this wouldn’t be #1, it would be #0. Maybe I’ll give this another try when the trade hits, but as it is I feel like I gave it a shot and the creative team gave me nothing I couldn’t get from a blurb in Previews.
New Romancer #1 by Peter Milligan and Brett Parson
Well, it’s better than Greek Street. Oddly, despite the bloody last two pages, this does not feel at all like a Vertigo book, it seems like it’s aimed mainly at female teenagers, largely due to Parson’s utterly gorgeous art, which if it has any antecedent in Vertigo history, it’s probably Phillip Bond. The book’s lead, Alexia Ryan, is a programmer for an online dating site. A Weird Science-like accident (the film, not the EC Comic) leads to her algorithm coming to life as Lord Byron. Some hijinks ensue, and the last page implies things won’t be all fun and games. Overall, this is a solid start, but as always, there is the distinct possibility of things turning with Milligan, who is probably the least consistent great writer in comics history.
The Shield #1 by Adam Cristopher, Chuck Wendig, Drew Johnson, and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Nice looking, but boring. Cristopher and Wendig’s reinvention of the Shield as a perpetually reincarnated spirit of America hits notes genre fans have seen time and time again. And at least give her a shield, considering it’s the book’s title and the most famous aspect of the character (at least the Impact version was wearing shield-like armor).
– Joe Gualtieri
This week’s question: what’s your favorite use of sports in comics?
Mike Sterling: I’ve never been one for sports, really. I mean, as a young'un I did play baseball and football with the neighborhood kids, but I never had much skill for it or interest in it. Any sports interest I did have probably peaked in high school nearly 30 years ago, as our volleyball team made state champion, and that was essentially that.
As such, I didn’t really seek out or pay much attention to sports in comics. It was always there, of course…Ronald Raymond was a high school basketball player in Firestorm The Nuclear Man, there were the weird mystery tales of DC’s Strange Sports Stories, and of course the famous DC heroes versus villains baseball story, but I think my favorite sports mention in comics actually involves a fictional sport.
Befitting a young nerd like myself, I perused the science fiction section in the local library, slowly working my way through the shelves. I particularly enjoyed the anthologies, the annual collections like Orbit and Nebula and such, and it was in one of these hardcover collections that I first encountered “Rules of Moopsball” by Gary Cohn. (You can read it yourself right here, presented online with permission by the author.) It wasn’t so much a story as…well, as the title says, rules for a bizarre, fantasy-tinged team sport. I think my particular interest in it came from an odd obsession I had (and still have, in fact) about reading game rules and examinations thereof. Not playing the games, necessarily, but enjoying how the various parts of the rules were detailed and worked together. (A favorite book of mine from that library was a history of the Monopoly game, for example.). As such, “Rules of Moopsball” was an unexpected diversion from the more traditional prose stories in the countless number of anthologies I would consume.That was the late ‘70s/early '80s when I read that story (and would occasional reread on later checkings-out of the same book). Not too long after that, I discovered the Legion of Super-Heroes comics and started following that series…in which, eventually, I would come across the occasional reference to the 30th century sport Moopsball.
Well, that surprised me a bit. There were two options I considered at the time: either the folks responsible for the Legion comics made up a name that coincidentally was the same as the sport from the story I’d read, or it was a specific, in-jokey reference to that very story. This wasn’t some huge mystery that occupied my time for years on end or anything…it was just something I noted, and as I became more immersed in comics, and eventually realized that the Gary Cohn who wrote “Rules of Moopsball” was in fact the same Gary Cohn who was also writing comics I was reading at the time, I eventually realized that, yes, it was bit of an in-joke.
As I recall, I don’t believe we ever saw the actual game of Moopsball in action in the Legion of Super-Heroes comics themselves, which was probably fine (particularly if they attempted to duplicate the game as described in the original story, which might have been a little too weird for a mainstream superhero comic). Despite that, I did appreciate this odd collusion among three different oddball interests of mine, reminding me that just maybe, I wasn’t alone in enjoying all these things.
Logan Polk: I know it’s hardly original, but I have to say I always loved it when we got to see the X-Men playing softball (or any sport really) in their downtime. I couldn’t tell you the first time I came across it, or in what comic. I do know that it wasn’t one of Claremont’s issues, as I didn’t come to the X-books until after he’d already left. But, since then I’ve probably read a dozen or so of those tales, including many of his. I’ve always been a sucker for sports films, so I’d venture to say that melding even a bit of that with the superhero genre just hits me in exactly the right spot. Considering the excessive crossovers of the last several years, it’s rare that the books slow down long enough to show the characters having anything close to fun. And under Brian Bendis’ pen the slow moments are usually time for him to “showcase” his dialoguing skills. I do remember a fairly recent issue of Avengers Academy (in the last few years at least) that pitted them against the new generation of X-Men in a football game; it was a fun throwback to much better days in both of those franchises.
Joe Gualtieri: Generally speaking, there are no best answers to the questions asked in this column. This is not a week where this is a case. Sure, like a lot of people who read X-Men comics in the 80s and 90s, I’ve got fond memories of softball games (which the Avengers tried to appropriate) or of John Byrne and Jim Lee’s attempt to switch the tradition to basketball in X-Men #4. I’m also just the right age to ironically love NFL Superpro (I want the trainwreck of this coming back so badly!) and Godzilla playing a game of hoops. Still, none of those are “Foul Play.”
Originally printed in Haunt of Fear #19 and illustrated by Jack Davis, “Foul Play” is one of the more infamous EC Comics horror stories. It’s not actually one of EC’s best. Oh, it’s ably drawn by Davis in wonderful, gory detail. Unfortunately, the characters and motivation are minimal, even by EC standards. The star pitcher on a team leading in the ninth inning of the last game of the minor league baseball season puts poison on his spikes and kills the best hitter on the opposing team. The team doctor figures out how the hitter died and rather than contacting the police, the players decide to handle the matter themselves. So they trick him into appearing at the ballpark the night before the next Major League Baseball season begins (as the pitcher was promoted) then dismember him and play a baseball game using the pitcher’s body parts as the equipment. The last page, with the hitter’s intestines used as baselines, his chest as the catcher’s well, chest protector, a leg as a bat, and his head as the ball make for some of the most indelible and grand guignol images in comics history. It’s little surprise that “Foul Play” was specifically excerpted in Frederic Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent. So while the story is thin, both for it’s unforgettable imagery and place in comics history, it’s my favorite use of sports in comics.
We Can Never Go Home by Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, Josh Hood, Brian Level, Amanda Scurti, and Tyler Boss is undoubtedly one of the biggest indie comics success stories of 2015. Buoyed in part by coverage of a controversial costume-change sequence in #3, the book burned up the back issue market. The trade paperback debuted just before Christmas and lives up to the hype. The book focuses on two teens, Madison and Duncan. The most popular girl in school, Madison hides her superpowers from the world until her boyfriend hits her during a confrontation with Duncan. In turn, Duncan tells Madison that he can kill people with his mind. The two have brief courtship that’s cut short following a violent incident that causes them to go on the run together.
From there, We Can Never Go Home is, at turns, exciting, funny, and compelling. There’s just one problem. I feel like I’ve already read this comic before. Twice, in fact. It’s called Harbinger. Originally published by Valiant in 1992, Harbinger was created by Jim Shooter and David Lapham. Joshua Dysart revived the series in 2012. I don’t mean to suggest a one-to-one correspondence here, but tonally, We Can Never Go Home clearly owes a huge debt to the two versions of the book. Shooter’s big idea for the title was a grittier version of the X-Men, where the characters were on the run, not living in a luxurious Westchester mansion. Dysart’s version is slower-paced than Shooter’s original and really foregrounds the troubling and dysfunctional relationship between the telepathic Peter Stanchek and normal human Kris Hathaway. Rosenberg and Kindlon switch the genders of which member of the couple possess powers, but they keep the manipulation. Like both versions of Harbinger, it’s about protagonists on the run, living on the margins, and does not center the story on a big city like New York. The last comparison is the Closed Casket organization Madison and Duncan briefly become involved with, which seems like a very low rent (and probably more realistic) version of Toyo Harada’s Harbinger Foundation.
Despite the familiarity of the story, Rosenberg and Kindlon, who are relative newcomers, do manage to make Madison and Duncan compelling. The real star is Josh Hood. Hood’s been in comics for nearly 20 years and worked on Superman, Spider-Man, and Aquaman, but only sporadically. The turning point for his career seems to have been a stint at Zenescope starting in 2012. We Can Never Go Home is, whatever its other flaws, an amazing showcase for someone who has apparently been overlooked all this time. His figures are clean and gorgeous like those of an but the world around them feels gritty, run down, but not Noir-ish. Really, the only comparison that makes sense to me is Dave Gibbons. Hood’s work isn’t as formally restrained though, and his action sequences are more fluid.
In summation, We Can Never Go Home manages the neat trick of both living up to its hype and disappointing. The story isn’t quite there, but it’s visually spectacular and likely marks the arrival of a major talent.
– Joe Gualtieri