The Discipline is the controversial new comic from Peter Milligan, Leandro Fernandez, and Cris Peter. Explicitly dealing with (inhuman) sex, art, and class, on the surface, The Discipline has nothing in common with Another Castle, the debut comic from Comics Alliance editor Andrew Wheeler and up-and-coming artist Paulina Ganucheau. Another Castle is all-ages and deconstructs the trope of the princess in need of rescuing. At their heart though, both comics examine female protagonists trapped by societal convention. Only one of them offers the possibility of a happy ending.
Amusingly, The Discipline opens with that happy ending, as 23 year old Melissa engages in a bout of vigorous lizard-person form sex with Orlando, a mysterious being sent to recruit her into the titular organization. The rest of the comic is a flashback, revealing how Melissa is married to the filthy-rich Andrew, but comes from a lower-class background herself. Now she lives an idle life, not even using her English degree in a job at publishing house any more. She exercises, goes to the museum to look at (apparently fictional) Goya paintings, and gossips with her friends about how her husband is absent from her life. She tries to give some of Andrew’s money to her family, but they rebuff her. Milligan and Fernandez’s last comic, The Names, was ostensibly a critique of the One Percent. It did not quite work, but the pair accomplishes everything it seemed to try to do there in a few pages of The Discipline. Everything about the absent Andrew seems utterly contemptible, and while Melissa complaining about her lifestyle should not endear reader sympathy, there’s no denying the emptiness of that lifestyle at its core. In this scenario, it’s easy to root for Orlando (likely an allusion to the Virginia Woolf novel, which was used by Alan Moore in later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books)in to seduce Melissa, particularly when he actually rebuffs her first attempt to get him into bed. The first issue does not reveal anything about the Discipline itself, but it at least implies to the reader that it’s about more than the mind-blowing, body-altering sex on the opening pages; there’s a spiritual component, and that’s as intriguing as the titillating imagery.
If only things looked so promising for Princess Misty, the protagonist of Another Castle. The only daughter of the king of Beldora, she’s promised to wed the foppish Pete and by her own admission, has no friends only “hair and make-up.” She wants to take a more active role in the kingdom, but that’s prohibited by “Don Diego’s Code of Conduct” (not that she’s read it). The villain of the book, Lord Badlug the Terrible, captures her on page seven, after Misty carelessly heads off when she (and she alone) spots one of his spies, then goes off into the forest to try and find out more. The very nature of this trap depends on Badlug knowing how Misty chafes in her role and wants something more out of life than marriage to Pete and babies. Rather than playing off the knowledge her and trying to seduce her, he imprisons her, intent on holding a forced wedding (Badlug is cursed and cannot leave his own kingdom. Marrying Misty would expand his kingdom, once her father died). Wheeler and Ganucheau, to their credit, do not portray Misty as being passive in the situation; she actually escapes, but returns to captivity when confronted with the depths of Badlug’s depravity and anger. She vows to do everything in her power to fight him from there, so as to avoid what happened the last time he kidnapped a princess. Unfortunately, from what we see in this first issue, defeating Badlug is the only sort of a happy ending Misty can look forward; the society around her, despite its bright trappings, is too restrained by tradition to allow her to be herself. The book would be far more interesting if Badlug was portrayed as responding to that aspect of Misty, so that she would be torn between her desire for self-actualization and desire to protect her kingdom. Instead, there’s no real conflict here and apparently no way for the heroine to get an ending worth rooting for, either.
by Joe Gualtieri
Secret Six; Friends in Low Places by Gail Simone, Ken Lashley, Dale Eaglesham, Tom Derenick, and Jason Wright
If the story behind your comic seems more interesting than the actual comic, there’s a problem. Gail Simone’s original Secret Six comic (as opposed to the original Secret Six) was one of the better DC Comics of the late 00s up until Flashpoint. It was an obvious heir to John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad (also a revival of a semi-obscure Silver Age title that barely hand anything to do with the original) as it starred c-list characters and made them incredibly interesting by focusing on their moral ambiguities. The cancellation of Secret Six was one of the great losses of DC’s 2011 reboot, so it finally coming back three years later with Simone as the writer again was pretty exciting. Unfortunately, something clearly happened behind the scenes and the comic pretty much spends the length of its first trade trying to course correct.
The first two and a half issues are drawn by Ken Lashley, the next three and half are by some combination of Tom Derenick (essentially a DC house stylist, and I mean that kindly) and Dale Eaglesham (the first artist on Simone’s original Secret Six). Lashley’s work on those two and a half issues is dark and bold, definitely not in the current DC house style. Eaglesham and Derenick deliver solid, but much more conventional work. Jason Wright colors all six issues, but his style over Lashley is completely different than his work over Derenick and Eaglesham. Over the latter two, Wright’s work looks like normal, contemporary superhero comics coloring. Over Lashley, his work is completely different, it looks almost as if instead of using a computer, he used markers, and the results are amazing. I know, I said in the last paragraph that they had to course-correct from Lashley’s issues and I’ve just been praising them. Unfortunately, while Lashley’s period on the book looks great, the story is obscure and unpleasant.
The book opens with Catman (the breakout star of the Simone’s original Secret Six) being kidnapped by Mockingbird’s goons. He wakes up trapped in a submerged construct along with Black Alice (also from the previous version of the book), the New 52 Ventriloquist (created by Simone during her Batgirl run), Strix (a former member of the Court of Owls from Batman), Big Shot (a private investigator), and Porcelain. He wants them to answer the question, “What is the secret?” or he will start killing them. It turns out Mockingbird had previously captured and tortured Catman a eighteen months prior to the series for a year until he escaped. Long story short, the group escapes, Black Alice is injured, and they go hide… in Big Shot’s suburban home. Three of Mockingbird’s goons (a disguised Scandal Savage, Jeanette, and Ragdoll, core members of the pre-Flashpoint Secret Six) pretend to be working against Mockingbird, fight the Secret Six for awhile, and then leave; it doesn’t do much except undercut how silly hiding from Mockingbird in Big Shot’s house is and drive home how underdeveloped the cast is. Catman and Black Alice are both basically coasting on what Simone did with them previously (particularly the latter). Catman only gets to stretch in an issue devoted mainly to sending up suburban mores. The New 52 Black Alice gets treated like a delicate flower by the male team members, especially after her injury, despite being the most powerful member of the team. She may be 16, but they act as if she’s significantly younger. The new Ventriloquist basically replaces Ragdoll in the role of team-member-who-says-outrageous-stuff. Strix is speech-impaired and her personality consists of the contrast between her poorly written, misspelled notes and her fighting prowess. You may have noted I did not write anything above about who Porcelain is; that’s because after six issues, I still have no idea who Porcelain is. Yes, I know what her super power is (she can make things brittle) and she has some decent quips, but Simone reveals nothing of her past or her motives (other than revenge against Mockingbird). Then there’s Big Shot, who it’s impossible to discuss without spoilers and revealing what the book is really about.
At the end of #4, Simone reveals to the reader that Big Shot is working for Mockingbird, who is really classic Batman villain the Riddler. The team finds out the next issue, and while confronting him, it turns out that Big Shot is Ralph Dibny, better known as the Elongated Man, a member of the Justice League and best friend of two Flashes pre-Flashpoint. At some point in the past, all the members of the Six plus Sue Dibny (Ralph’s wife) were on the Riddler’s yacht for various reasons revolving around the India Star Diamond. The Riddler proposed to the very married Sue just before the boat exploded. Ralph could not save Sue, but he’s working for the Riddler with the understanding that he knows what happened to her. Meanwhile, the India Star Diamond went missing and the Riddler had the others kidnapped to try and find out which of them stole the jewel. Oh, and Sue’s alive, with amnesia, and working as the Riddler’s henchperson. She also does not look at all like Sue Dibny, which gets to the problems with the story. Ralph and Sue Dibny mean nothing to anyone who was not reading DC Comics prior to Flashpoint. As I wrote above, it seems like there was a course correction here, and it is because there is no reason to hide any of this. The Riddler is a super-villain who in the New 52 universe, ran Gotham City for a year. He’s a scary guy here, not a joke. Why the Mockingbird disguise? The only reason Sue does not look like Sue is to mess with the reader and save a revelation for the sixth issue (unless making the character Sue Dibny came after she initially appeared). The Riddler keeping his real motives a secret in the first issues, asking “What is the secret?” instead of “Where’s my diamond?” makes no sense. The timeline is terrible. In the present of the book, the India Star Diamond has been gone for at least two years (since Catman was originally kidnapped 18 months ago and escaped six months ago). It took the Riddler that long to bother with anyone other than Catman and Ralph Dibny? Dibny’s whole shtick is that he’s a detective with a nose for a mystery, and he made no progress on what happened to his wife for two years? All that is plausible, I suppose, but superhero comics are not reality and the timeline Simone gives events is weirdly drawn out for the genre. Looking at the art credits, the shipping schedule (#2 was late and there was a big gap for #3 because of DC’s move to Burbank), something happened. Whether it had to do with artist Ken Lashley or editorial, I have no idea, but I’m more interested in that story than this incarnation of the Secret Six, which is a damn shame.
It Takes A Villain is TWC’s bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role; brought to by your favorite black ops bad-ass, Mick Martin.
What exactly is the point of a
work-release team of super-villains?
I’m saying you’ve got the Justice
League – often multiple squads of the Justice League- and you’ve
got the Teen Titans and the Outsiders and the Birds of Prey and the
Justice Society and the Green Lantern Corps; along with gobs of solo
heroes jumping rooftops and streaking across the sky. It’s a wonder
anyone in either the Marvel or DC universes can do so much as
jay-walk without some traumatized jerk in a mask ready to dropkick
them for it. So, in a world with this kind of super-hero surplus, why
does the United States government then say, “well, we need one more
team comprised of super powered murderers, thieves, and rapists; and
if they actually survive their missions, we let them out of jail for
good?” Or, you know, if not for good then at least until
Booster Gold or someone else kicks their ass.
The only obvious answer is that while,
sure, the world already has a ton of super teams, the government
doesn’t have much control over what they do. The government can’t
stop the Justice League from doing something it doesn’t want them to
do. And it certainly can’t deploy the Justice League on specific
missions. It can ask for help and in times of crisis (actual crisis,
not DC crisis), it will almost always get it. If the government needs
help fighting off invading aliens or stopping an incoming asteroid or
some other Michael Bay horseshit, sure, the Justice League will be
But sneaking into Soviet Russia,
liberating a political prisoner, and getting her to the States all
for the sake of global PR? Yeah, Superman and Batman probably aren’t
going to make time for that.
I wasn’t going to review Suicide
Squad, Vol. 1: Trial by Fire quite so soon. I ordered it around
the same time I started It Takes A Villain, but since I knew my first
review would be about the New 52 volume of Suicide Squad, I
figured I’d want more of a break between reviewing different
volumes of the same title. I thought it might even make more sense to
review it sometime late September or early August; close to the
release date of David Ayer’s film adaptation.
But once I broke down and read Trial
by Fire, I knew I didn’t want to wait to review it.
Suicide Squad is violent. Considering the name of the comic and the premise, that shouldn’t be surprising, but the way the violence is handled is different. That, I guess, shouldn’t be surprising either. The restraints DC Comics had to deal with in 1987 helped make the violence more artful and more interesting. One of the sequences I find the most memorable is in the beginning of the sixth chapter when Deadshot kills a Soviet soldier. Deadshot raises a rifle and says, “No sweat.” We see a panel showing the faces of three Soviet soldiers searching for something, with a BLAM! above them. In the next panel we see roughly the same shot with the flanking soldiers’ heads reacting to the gunshot and a simple red explosion erupting between the eyes of the center soldier and covering most of the top half of his face. The way it’s presented, the explosion could be blood, or it could just be a mark of impact. The page’s final panel has the soldier knocked backward and his comrades reacting to his killing. Most of the panel is colored the same as the previous panels, with the exception of the killed soldier’s head which is completely lost in shadow, with telltale inky spurts exploding from his forehead.
While I’m sure
it’s the gorier, more explosive, and direct style of today that
sells, this is so much more elegant and ingeniously subtle. It
reveals everything while showing almost nothing. I’d take this over
Harley Quinn and King Shark ripping their way through a stadium of
cyborg zombies any day.
Compared to more recent shots at the
franchise, Ostrander and McDonnell’s Suicide Squad was
politically charged and controversial. The team’s first mission in
this volume is to take down a Middle Eastern mercenary super-villain
group called Jihad. The aforementioned “Mission to Moscow”
storyline is the longest in the book – spanning three issues –
and follows the team’s incursion into Soviet Russia to attempt to
save a dissident Russian writer who, it turns out, doesn’t really
want to be saved.
story so bold I’m surprised to have not heard of it before reading
this volume is from Suicide Squad #4.
A crossbow-wielding vigilante calling himself William Hell is
fighting crime in Central City, but the only criminals he hands over
to the cops are the ones who aren’t white. White criminals he
recruits into his Aryan Empire. The Squad is sent to infiltrate
Hell’s organization and expose him for the racist he is.
than anything, what impresses me about this volume of Suicide
Squad and makes me desperately
hope DC keeps reprinting the original series, is that Waller’s Task
Force X doesn’t handle things the way they do now.
recent incarnations of Suicide Squad aren’t much different from
straight super-hero teams. Yes, they’re more violent, but
super-heroes in general are more violent than they used to be so that
doesn’t really mean a whole lot. Books like today’s New
Suicide Squad are really just
super-hero titles with a little gimmick twist.
with the original Suicide Squad.
They were different. They were exactly what they were supposed to be:
a super-villain answer to The Dirty Dozen.
The Suicide Squad is an elite secret task force that does not
accomplish all or most of its missions with big, loud, stupid
super-fights. Sure, they have their fisticuffs, but most of the time
they’re doing everything they can to operate under the radar. When
the team exposes William Hell in Suicide Squad #4,
no one has any idea they’re involved. Captain Boomerang is the only
team member Hell ever sees in costume. Deadshot, Nightshade, Rick
Flag, and Bronze Tiger are all disguised. Chronos – the squad
member arguably most instrumental in Hell’s downfall – is never
actually physically near the action. And Hell’s defeat has nothing to
do with a fight with the Squad. They just trick the stupid, racist
sonofabitch. Certain members like Nightshade and Black Orchid operate
almost completely from the shadows, never or rarely taking part in
any violence. In the “Mission to Moscow” story, squad members
like Penguin and Deadshot don’t appear in costume for so much as a
single panel in a three-issue long storyline. Because why would they
appear in costume? They’re trying to get in and out of the Soviet
Union in secret. They don’t want to spread bloody carnage all over
the place just for the fun of evil wicked evilness. They want to
finish their mission and go home. Compare that to New
Suicide Squad which opened in
Russia with a huge, explosive, city-rocking battle between the
Suicide Squad and Russia’s Rocket Reds.
it seems like over the years super-hero titles got more like Suicide
Squad while Suicide
Squad got more like everybody
else. Books like Ultimates and
Secret Avengers worked
hard to get that military black ops feels that Suicide
Squad had. Super hero team books
overall have a stronger military feel these days, using military
lingo and tactics. In the opening salvos of Avengers Vs.
X-Men, the assembled team of
Avengers about to invade the beaches of Utopia listened to the
military strategy/pep-talk of Red Hulk, even though the lousy
derivative bastard had tried to bring down the US government a few
seems unlikely that Suicide Squad will
ever get back to its less fight-y, black ops feel; at least judging
by the look of the film and the fact that Harley Quinn has become as
much a fixture on the team as Deadshot and Captain Boomerang. I like
Harley Quinn. I adore her solo comic. But she wouldn’t have lasted
five minutes on the old team. How do you get through a secret mission
in Soviet Russia with someone like Harley Quinn? How do you
incorporate the Joker face and giant cartoon mallet with a stolen
Soviet soldier uniform?
get me wrong. I enjoyed the New 52 Suicide Squad.
I’m a bit more on the fence with New Suicide Squad.
I’ll certainly be checking out the post-Rebirth series and I’m
precipitously guessing the film may be the best super-hero flick of
the year (or at least close to it). But this original volume is
something a bit more different. Something tougher to find in other
books, and it’s regrettable that aspect of the franchise is gone. I’m just happy that for now
DC looks set to reprint the rest of the original series, and if it’s
new to me, it’s new to me.
Suicide Squad, Vol. 1:Trial by Fire
is good. Read it.
This week’s question: How do you feel about enhanced covers? They always get a large part of the blame for what happened in the 90s, but is it deserved? Were there any you liked?
Logan Polk: I don’t think it’s entirely fair to place the blame of the ‘90s comics market collapse at the feet of gimmick covers. Yes, they had a part to play in it, but the over saturation of issues was, I think, a much bigger problem. With the possible exception of the poly-bagged Deadpool card, can any retailer still move their copies of X-Force #1 at even face value? Yet it still gets mentioned in conversations regarding how many copies were sold, how popular the book was, and so on. The only gimmick to it was that there were different trading cards bagged with each issue,* and I don’t recall there being a shortage on any particular card, Mike Sterling would have a better memory of that though. But, the true gimmick covers, like the glow-in-the-dark Ghost Rider issue, or the chromium/acetate/hologram stuff? I always enjoyed them. I can’t speak for the retailers though, maybe they were an absolute nuisance. My favorite has to be that Ghost Rider issue, easily. I even have the second printing.
*Ed. Note: There was also the matter of the reverse-image UPC boxes.
Chris Allen: I never had a particular problem with special or variant covers. I remember being one of those guys in the early ‘90s buying all the different editions of X-Force #1, which was poly-bagged and had 4 or 5 different trading cards to collect. Even at the time, I questioned why I was buying multiple editions of a comic made by a creator I didn’t even like all that much, but I did it, and that’s on me. A little later, acetate covers helped the quite good Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross miniseries MARVELS stand out on the shelves, and while the acetate one-shot thing was quickly overused and applied to lesser books, I didn’t blame the covers themselves. I was already growing beyond the irrational need to buy every cover, especially once some variants got to be over $10. Mostly, I don’t care that much about the cover, especially if I really only have to buy one edition of the book. In the internet age, I think most people kind of decide whether to pick up a comic by the description of the story, list of creators, etc., and the cover doesn’t much matter. At the same time, I think maybe there’s something to be learned from some of these covers, as a lot of the time, one sees a cover and, due to the “it’s going to be collected in a trade very soon anyway” nature, the cover itself isn’t treated as a necessary selling tool.
Joe Gualtieri: I love a well-done gimmick cover (please note the well-done modifier). Some of that is certainly nostalgia; after all, I was the right age in the early 90s to be into them at the time. That being said, I honestly believe that a gimmick can enhance a cover to create an effect traditional pen an ink cannot replicate. My favorite example of this is probably the cover to Darkhawk #25 by Mike Manley. Rendering Darkhawk’s blast in foil makes it pop off the cover in way that even modern coloring techniques would be hard-pressed to match. Similarly, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #50 uses prismatic foil to make Strange’s magic look truly otherworldly. Glow in the dark covers tend to be a favorite of a lot of people, and I’m not exception. Ghost Rider #15 is probably the most famous and best example, followed by Venom: the Enemy Within #1, but I’m partial to Green Lantern #50.
So what’s the difference between a good and a bad gimmick cover? Well, for starters, let’s just get this out of the way—polybags are bad. They keep people from being able to flip through comics on the stands and generally discourage reading (the Colorforms-style covers DC did were neat, and probably the only justifiably poly-bagged comics). Beyond that, let’s compare the thirtieth anniversary covers for Spider-Man in 1992 to the ones for the X-Men in 1993. In both cases, Marvel “celebrated” with hologram covers. The Spider-Man covers are, essentially, only the holograms with a border. Coming out in 1992, covers usually reflected the contents of the comic, so iconic shots of just Spider-Man were a rarity, and making them holograms were an added twist. The X-Men covers, by contrast, are mess. The six X-Men anniversary covers are wrap-around images, nearly a quarter of which are then covered up by a wall of text in a very 1993 font with a hologram card slapped on top. The Spider-Man covers revolve around the hologram while the X-Men covers just slap them on in an example of unattractive excess. It’s actually a shame, as the X-Men holograms look a lot better, on their own, than the Spider-Man ones (the X-Men thirtieth anniversary magazine contains an in-depth feature on how they were made that is quite interesting), but they have nothing to do with the covers that they’re attached to, making them aesthetic abominations and among the worst gimmick covers.
No title better exemplifies the good and the bad of gimmick covers than Fantastic Four. Between #358 and 400, the title featured seven enhanced covers (not counting the issue polybagged with Dirt magazine, an allegedly hip magazine Marvel poly-bagged with a random title a month for awhile), and basically serve as a microcosm for the good and bad of the trend. #358 is one of the earliest enhanced covers and sports a simple die-cut for the book’s thirtieth anniversary. #371 is a completely gratuitous in terms of being a gimmick cover (ostensibly it was a key story, but in hindsight, no, it was not), but it is utterly gorgeous, with its all-white, varnished and embossed cover. #375 has a terrible, poorly integrated foil cover because it’s an anniversary issue. #394 comes poly-bagged with an animation cel promoting the new FF cartoon and sports a metallic-ink cover just because. Finally, #398-400 all have a foil covers, as a closing iris gradually reveals the new look team that does not exactly debut in #400. So as with gimmick covers as a whole, those FF covers start off as something new and innovative, and gradually just become a sales gimmick that are not well thought out and are solely there to bring in more money. It’s not at all accurate to blame them for the comic market collapsing in the 90s, but they certainly fed into the bubble that existed, as the history of Fantastic Four gimmick covers shows.
Mike Sterling: You know, by and large I was okay with
enhanced covers, at least until things got way out of hand. As I’m
presuming some of you know, I’ve been in the business of funnybook-sellin’
for nearly three decades now, so I was there when, as the market began to
swell with more and more comics all demanding the consumer’s attention,
companies began to look for new ways to grab the eye. I’m not quite sure
what the first comic out of the gate was that kicked off that '80s/'90s
trend, but there were predecessors: there was Boffo Laffs with
“the first holo-comic!” in 1986, and I suppose there was that one
issue of RAW from 1985, where corners were torn off each cover, and then
randomly taped back into each copy of the magazine.
Like I said, I was fine with the idea of it, but as the marketplace burgeoned with more and more first issues and event comics, and too many investors were desperately looking for whatever the next big thing was going to be, the proliferation of special covers of course meant they were less special as time went on. Retailers, ordering cases of these books when they once could have expected to blow through them all in short order, were now finding they had to dump them in their bargain bins. Piles of chromium and foil and die-cut covers, all relegated to dusty backroom shelves, filed away in 50-cent boxes,hiding away in forgotten storage units, or occupying landfills as they slowly break down, or not break down, depending on what exactly comprised the material of the cover in question.
An interesting thing I’ve noticed over the last few years, however, is that there is once again some demand for those enhanced covers. Kids who weren’t around back in the Stone Age twenty or so years ago, and thus weren’t burnt out on the fad, are pulling those foil-or-whatever covers out of the back issue bins. They’re able to see them with a fresh eye, not contemptibly-familiar with them, not pulling stacks off the racks with one hand while clutching their “Comic Book Becketts” with the other, but buying them because they look neat. They have no idea these special comics went from “oh hey this is kind of cool” to “oh God I have to pay extra for yet ANOTHER shiny cover?” in, like, a year and a half.
And, you know, some of them are pretty neat. Probably my favorite
just plain ol’ shiny holographic/foil/whatever it is cover is Adventures of Superman #505 from 1993. Some of you may recall the whole Death-And-Return-of-Superman brouhaha, which itself was no stranger to multiple special covers along the way (including the infamously over-ordered Adventures of Superman #500). At the conclusion of the storyline, to herald the return of the one True-and-Mulleted Man of Steel, a special cover was provided for #505, which used the holographic/foil enhancement to nice effect, making it appear as if fireworks were bursting in the background as you moved the cover around. Really, get your mitts on one of these and check it out yourself… it’s pretty cool-looking and it is sufficiently celebratory given the context in which it is presented.
Ah, but that isn’t my all-time favorite cover enhancement. In fact, this may not even count as a cover enhancement but rather a full-book enhancement, as, Adhesive Comics, back in 1993, took their copies of their comics anthology Jab #3 down to the shooting range and put a bullet through every copy:
Here’s a slightly closer look at said bullethole, in case you don’t
And get this: the regular version of Jab #3 was shot in 10-copy stacks by a .22 caliber bullet. There is an ad in the back of the issue where you can order “Ultimate Collectors Edition” copies of Jab #3, each shot individually by a 9mm ($6) all the way up to the "guaranteed not to be readable" shotgun edition ($10). Each comic would be bagged with the shell of the ammunition fired into it. I don’t know how many people went for this admittedly awesome offer, but I do know that they created something amazing, a crazy-ass enhancement to beat all enhancements. The bullet’s passage through the book was even incorporated into some of the stories themselves, such as this panel from Shannon Wheeler’s “Too Much Coffee Man” entry:
This is just downright bonkers, but this
almost makes the piles of Namor the Sub-Mariner #37 and Turok: Dinosaur
Hunter #1 all worth it.
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
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 alternate future reality more bad-ass version of Mick Martin.
The army of mini-series rolled out with Marvel’s Secret Wars event had its share of villain titles. The chronicles of Battleworld included M.O.D.O.K. Assassin, Squadron Sinister, and Red Skull. But while It Takes A Villain continues to feed my interest in super-villain comics, my first comic book allegiance was to a certain green-sometimes-gray (never red, not in this house) goliath. Because of that, because of the fact that I write about super-villain comics, and in spite of what was initially a lukewarm interest in the new Secret Wars event, the announcement of Peter David and Greg Land’s Future Imperfect mini-series confirmed that I would be reading at the least one of these alternate-reality-crazy, nostalgia-fueled Secret Wars things.
Now, I have to warn you that this column is filled with spoilers. That’s something I like to avoid normally, but this isn’t an ordinary review. What intrigues me about this new version of Future Imperfect has less to do with how good the series is and more to do with the intentions of the writer. And it’s impossible for me to discuss that without revealing exactly how this series ends. You’ve been warned.
Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect was released in 1992 as a two-issue prestige format mini-series. During a period in which Banner’s mind occupies the Hulk’s body, the hero goes into the future at the request of a squad of desperate rebels. Shortly after he arrives in Dystopia – presumably the only city left standing in the post-nuclear Earth – the Hulk learns that the super-powered despot he’s been recruited to take down is, in fact, himself. The radiation that killed so many only served to make the Hulk of the future more powerful, as well as helping to nudge him toward insanity. The Robert Bruce Banner of the future calls himself The Maestro. He sports long white hair and a beard, and a skin of darker green with sick-looking welts rising off its surface.
Incredible Hulk writer Peter David had already won over scores of fans to his redefining of Bruce Banner’s relationship with his alter ego, and his original Future Imperfect series is widely considered one of the best stories in a run that is still a fan standard against which every other Hulk writer is judged. Veteran artist George Perez created visuals in the comic that remain fan favorites; the most memorable being a double-page splash of a trophy room featuring relics from just about every Marvel character you could think of.
Of the many Secret Wars series based on old series and crossovers, Future Imperfect is possibly the only one written by the same guy who wrote the source material. Because of this, there’s something of a metafictional edge to Future Imperfect, particularly to the Hulk fan who remembers David’s groundbreaking run and how it ended.
Like most of the Secret Wars series, Future Imperfect’s opening setting is just another one of God Doom’s kingdoms. This one is Dystopia, of which The Maestro is the Baron. The series opens in the wasteland outside Dystopia, where the mutant Ruby Summers (presumably the daughter of Cyclops and Emma Frost, though I don’t remember if this is ever confirmed) stumbles upon an old, weak man who claims to be a de-powered Odin. Ruby is a member of the anti-Maestro resistance and brings the old man to the rebel hideout. Once there, a psychic scan reveals the truth: the old man is The Maestro, but in Banner’s human form. It’s a brilliant move by David for a couple of reasons. First, when Maestro was introduced, the Hulk did not transform back and forth between his body and Banner’s, so it was always kind of assumed the Maestro was the future version of that specific incarnation of the Hulk. I don’t believe a single appearance of the Maestro exists before this one in which he transforms to human. Second, having Maestro enter the story as a false god is a nice bit of foreshadowing.
Once the cat’s out of the bag, Maestro gets his Hulk on and the rebel leader soon appears: The Thing, but not Ben Grimm. In this Dystopia’s history, it was good ol’ Thunderbolt Ross who got belted by cosmic rays and transformed into the Thing. It’s a huge, bloody battle, and in the end the Maestro is the victor. Maestro takes Ross prisoner, but he has more in mind than torture and death.
Okay, the biggest spoilers are inbound. Again, I consider you warned.
The Maestro, predictably, doesn’t like taking orders from God Doom. He’s found a book claiming that a suit of armor exists called The Destroyer that gives its bearer the power to kill Doom. With the possible outcomes that the Maestro will either succeed and leave Dystopia or fail and be murdered by Doom, Thunderbolt Thing and his rebels agree to join Maestro on his quest to find the armor. They travel to the very Asgard-y Battleworld domain Nornheim. After a tussle in a tavern and fight with Ulik and some of Ulik’s troll buddies, Maestro and his reluctant comrades learn that the aged, wheelchair-bound Rick Jones is the guardian of the Destroyer armor.
Jones happily allows the Maestro to use the armor. Soon after, Doom appears and attacks his subversive Baron. The Destroyer armor is as good as the stolen book promised and the Maestro easily kills Doom and takes over Battleworld.
But, not really.
One moment we see a triumphant Maestro standing amid a crowd of kneeling super-heroes, promising to be a just and beneficent god. The next, we see Ross and his rebels watching Maestro, confused. They see the Maestro standing before the armor, yelling at no one in particular. Rather than giving him the power to kill Doom, the armor simply fed the Maestro the dream he wanted to see and apparently will always see until he dies.
Future Imperfect ends with the deluded Maestro – a false god now as he was in the desert in the beginning of the series – paraphrasing lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias: “I am the Maestro! King of kings! Look on my works, ye mighty…and despair!”
This is not the first time David has quoted Ozymandias. He referenced it heavily in Incredible Hulk #467; the powerful issue that ended his 12-year run on the series. The title of the story, “The Lone and Level Sands,” was taken directly from the sonnet.
Reading this new Future Imperfect series with that in mind puts an interesting spin on it.
There are loud echoes not only from the original Future Imperfect, but also David’s original Hulk run and even his one shot Incredible Hulk: The End, in this newer mini.
Some of the references are specific. During his final, delusional battle with Doom, the Maestro taunts Doom by implying the villain’s deadly blasts are serving simply to scratch his back.
Any fan of the fantastic Peter David/Dale Keown era of Incredible Hulk should immediately recognize this gag as a repeat from the Hulk’s battle with the U-Foes in Incredible Hulk #397.
I guess it’s possible to take a less generous view of this and assume David just did something easy rather than coming up with something new. The fact that he uses the same joke in a battle between the Hulk and Avengers of the Secret Wars mini Secret Wars 2099 could support that, but not in light of all the other references found in Future Imperfect to his previous work.
David introducing Maestro as a false Odin, the journey to Nornheim, and all the references to pagan gods are reminiscent of Incredible Hulk: The End. In that one-shot David compared the Hulk and the other, long-dead heroes of Marvel to gods and titans. The Hulk was specifically compared to Prometheus who gave fire to humanity and who was punished by being strapped to a rock and having his insides ravaged by birds every day, only to survive and have the process repeat. To reproduce this in Hulk: The End, David gives us a swarm of irradiated cockroaches who constantly hunt the Hulk and tear him to pieces though he survives because of his healing factor. In that one-shot, David waited toward the end to compare super-heroes to figures of myth, but in Future Imperfect, he does it as early as the first page. As she walks through the desert, Ruby Summers’s narration tells us about the myths of the world that existed before Battleworld: myths she doesn’t believe in. Her attitude is echoed a few issues later in Nornheim’s blind Hoder, who laments the downfall of the gods.
The ending of the first issue is a surprising and clever reference to the original Future Imperfect mini. In the 1992 series, the first issue ended with the Hulk of the present and the Maestro meeting nose-to-nose in the underground rebel base and saying in unison, “Doctor Banner, I presume.” Again, in the 2015 Future Imperfect, the issue ends with the Maestro having found and infiltrated the rebel base, but the issues ends with Maestro not facing another Hulk, but facing Thunderbolt Ross as the Thing.
In light of everything else, this seems like it could almost be a tribute to not David’s own work on Hulk, but to Jeph Loeb’s. Or, if not tribute, then some kind of commentary. The reason why it should have been a surprise to no one that Thunderbolt Ross was the Red Hulk in Loeb’s Hulk was that, through the eyes of Betty Ross, Loeb had portrayed Hulk and Thunderbolt Ross as two sides of the same coin in the first significant work he did on the character: the 2003 retrospective mini-series Hulk: Gray. And here, David puts Ross in the Hulk’s shoes. The absence of a heroic Hulk, like the intelligent Hulk of the 1992 Future Imperfect, is the biggest absence felt in this newer series. We have a Maestro, but no Hulk to counter him. Thunderbolt Thing is the closest we have and he’s a poor substitute. Like the Hulk of the original mini, Thunderbolt Thing’s battle with Maestro ends in his defeat. He is captured, just like Hulk in the original mini. The difference is when the Maestro offers the Hulk an alliance, he tells him to go to Hell, eventually only appearing to give in so he can lull Maestro into a false sense of security. Thunderbolt Thing, on the other hand, isn’t awake five minutes before he bends over and gives in.
The Maestro’s ultimate fate in the 2015 Future Imperfect should remind Hulk fans of one of David’s tie-ins to the 1996 Onslaught event. In Incredible Hulk #445, an egotistical Hulk led a small team of Avengers in hopes of taking down Onslaught, all in defiance of Captain America’s plans. In the scene that unfolded, the Hulk defeats Onslaught, but only after the villain kills everyone else. As the Hulk cheers over his triumph, it’s revealed that the battle never happened. Just like Maestro’s “triumph” over Doom, the battle with Onslaught is an illusion Onslaught psychically created to fool the Hulk. When the rest of Hulk’s team sees him celebrate his victory in spite of what he believes to be their grisly deaths, the last few of Marvel’s heroes who feel any trust toward the Hulk turn their back on him.
The very quest for the Destroyer armor is a reference to David’s original Hulk run. At the end of the original 1992 mini, the Hulk defeats Maestro by sending him back in time to ground zero of the original gamma bomb blast that created the Hulk. The Maestro was so powerful, however, that some piece of him survived the blast. We eventually learned toward the end of David’s original Hulk run that the mysterious call back to the gamma bomb blast Hulk had felt over the years was, in fact, a summons from the Maestro. He was calling the Hulk there to feed off of his gamma energy in hopes of one day resurrecting. In Incredible Hulk #461, the Maestro did return but not in his own body. With the help of some vengeful trolls, the Maestro possessed the Destroyer armor and used it to go after the Hulk.
But the loudest echo back to his original work on Hulk is David’s handling of the ancient, wheelchair-bound Rick Jones.
In David’s Hulk finale, the story is told from the perspective of Rick Jones ten years after the events of the previous issue. David’s departure from the title was not a happy one and was over a passionate disagreement of the future direction of the title. David speaks through Jones of his own situation at many points in the story. Speaking of the disagreement in the title’s direction, Jones says the events of the previous issue were, “the day the Hulk started down the road he never wanted to travel.” Toward the end of the issue, he says, “I could keep on telling stories about the Hulk…keep on going…but there’s other things in life, you know?”
It’s tempting, then, and perhaps fitting to see Jones’s words in the same light at the end of Future Imperfect. Maestro’s quoting of Ozymandias certainly seems like a direct signal that we should do that. And, if we do, it does not exactly put a positive spin on David’s return to this story.
In spite of working for 12 years on Incredible Hulk, subsequent Hulk writers rarely referenced David’s run. It seems likely this is at least in part due to what used to be some fairly public conflicts between David and Marvel’s Powers That Be. It’s always been surprising to me, for example, that of all the wonderful villains David created during his tenure as Hulk writer, few have popped up elsewhere. It’s only been in very recent years that we’ve seen them surface. Mark Millar killed off Speedfreek in the opening pages of Civil War. Daniel Way brought back David’s villain Mercy for his Thunderbolts revival. The Maestro, in the meantime, has appeared a couple of times, but considering the success of the original Future Imperfect, it’s surprising how rarely it’s happened. Usually, he’s shown up only because David himself was writing him, like his appearance in a time travel issue of Captain Marvel. Perhaps because the conflicts have cooled over the years, Maestro is just now peeking out of the sand. He appeared in an issue of A+X, and Gerry Duggan gave his new Flowers-for-Algernon version of the Hulk nightmarish visions of his transformation into the Maestro. And now, with Secret Wars over (again), and Amadeus Cho replacing Banner as the Hulk in Totally Awesome Hulk, we have a Maestro appearing regularly in the mobile game tie-in Contest of Champions. In the pages of Totally Awesome Hulk, we so far we have been given only snapshots of what happened to Banner, and it seems like a good possibility we will eventually learn that the reason Cho replaced Banner as the Hulk is because Banner has finally become the Maestro. That’s only speculation, but the evidence fits.
You might think that this would give David some satisfaction; that his stories are finally being honored and acknowledged. But the ending of the 2015’s Future Imperfect may make you question that.
Once we learn that Maestro’s battle with Doom has been nothing but an illusion, Maestro transforms back to human form. We learn that the quest for the Destroyer armor has been an elaborate trap that Doom set for the Maestro. The now ancient Rick Jones is there on Doom’s orders. Just as she appeared in the original mini, Jones’s granddaughter Janis Jones is one of the rebels who accompanies Maestro to Nornheim.
When Janis asks Rick to leave with her and the rebels, Rick tells his granddaughter that Doom has tasked Jones to stay and watch over the deluded Maestro. “Me and him. Until the end of time.”
“That sucks,” Janis says.
Jones answers, “Eh. There’s worse ways to live.”
If we consider David speaking through Jones in Incredible Hulk #467, consider Jones’s appointed task, and consider the very fact that this new Future Imperfect series even exists, it casts a pretty dismal light on David’s opinion of the whole thing.
Jones says he has to stay with the Maestro until “the end of time.” Likewise, here’s David, tasked to return to a story he wrote over 20 years ago, with a character he set aside before the current century began. Not just tasked with writing the same character, but the same story. Not a sequel. Write Future Imperfect, David. Write it again.
This week’s question: what’s your favorite debut by a comics character or team?
Mike Sterling: For my favorite first appearance of a team,
I’m going to go with a comic that hasn’t particularly aged well, but still
holds some nostalgic value with me. All-Star Squadron, DC’s attempt in the ‘80s at a
new super-team book set in World War II (on Earth 2, no less) began life as a
16-page insert in Justice League of America #193 (1981). Now, those
inserts were very effective on Young Mike, basically giving you a second
whole-other funnybook in a comic you’d already plunked your fifty cents (or whatever)
down for. That’s how DC got you to check out New Teen Titans (inserted
into DC Comics Presents) or Blue Devil (in an issue of Fury of
Firestorm) and a handful of other titles. Marvel follows a similar strategy
now, putting full issues of recent debuts in other, more popular comics…most
recently including Vision #1 as a back-up in Spider-Man/Deadpool,
but perhaps I’m getting slightly off-topic.
Placing that All-Star Squadron insert in Justice League of America was certainly well-planned, given that the JLA regularly crossed over with their Earth 2 counterparts, the Justice Society. That was definitely how I was introduced to those characters, discovering that there was a whole parallel universe featuring older counterparts (and entirely different superheroes) to the familiar heroes of the League. Here’s Superman…and here’s older Superman. Whoa. And now here’s All-Star Squadron, set back in the 1940s when these Earth 2 characters were in their prime, and in an entirely separate team from the Justice Society so that writer Roy Thomas could do his patented continuity plug-ins without too badly disrupting what had already gone on before in those actually-published-in-the-1940s All-Star Comics that featured the JSA.
And it was those continuity plug-ins that was a huge part of the appeal. It was through All-Star Squadron (and especially in a contemporaneous related mini-series, the history-spanning footnote extravaganza America Vs. The Justice Society) that readers were introduced to characters and situations from those old issues of All-Star Comics. There may have been the occasional “AS SEEN IN ALL-STAR COMICS #17” editorial note, which, you know, sure ol’ Roy had a full run but a fat lot of good that did most of us reading the comic, but it still spoke of a long legacy to these characters, an unseen history aside from maybe the rare reprint in one of DC’s digests. All-Star Squadron gave us kids a new appreciation of what had come before, and for that I am grateful to that unexpected insert in that long-ago issue of Justice League.
As I’d said, the appreciation is more nostalgic than anything else. Going back and rereading them as an adult, the flaws become more obvious, the clunky storytelling more apparent. I can appreciate the effort put into the title, but to more modern sensibilities it’s rough going. Even that beloved America Vs. The Justice Society has become bit of a slog, even with the nice art (sabotaged though it was DC’s unfortunate early flirtation with flexographic printing). Even still, I’m quite fond of that old All-Star Squadron insert. To be frank, I couldn’t even tell you exactly what happened in that debut installment, only that I was still young enough to be excited by the prospect of a new comic book showing me adventures and characters I hadn’t experienced before. That’s a valuable memory all by itself.
Logan Polk: This August will mark the twentieth anniversary of the debut of Aztek, the Ultimate Man. Created by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and N. Steven Harris, I still remember being blown away by that first issue. It was almost the antithesis to what was so very popular (and sadly still is), the grim n’ gritty superhero. So much so that we see the as-yet-unnamed Aztek take on a Punisher knock-off named Bloodtype in the first issue. Bloodtype is attempting to stop a robbery by a low level villain with lethal force, and as happens in the world of caped crusaders, the would be hero happens to be in line at the time and eventually comes to the defense of the pummeled bad guy. I still get a kick out of the fact that Millar would go on to write some incredibly dark material and Morrison went on to have a lengthy run on Batman, concepts and a character they are pretty much taking down a peg with the first issue of Aztek. I haven’t revisited it the book in awhile, but it’s a character whose first appearance definitely had an impact on me, and made me rethink what I wanted from superhero comics.
Joe Gualtieri: I’m cheating slightly with my answer, in several ways. Back in 1996, at the conclusion of the Onslaught saga, Marvel killed off the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. Hard to believe in this day in age, but sales were not great, so they hired Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to try their hand those books, free of regular Marvel continuity for a year. With a chunk of the line gone, Marvel revived some old concepts (Heroes for Hire) gave some newer characters their own on-going series for the first time (Deadpool) and put out one all-new book, with some incredibly generic looking characters, titled Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley.
The team first appeared in Incredible Hulk #449, which hinted at secret for the team. From there, they briefly appeared in Tales of the Marvel Universe (mostly a preview book for the post-Onslaught line, like the All-New Marvel specials today). Both of these stories, however, occur-in universe after Thunderbolts #1, so in a way, it is still the teams debut. As expected from those generic ads, Thunderbolts #1 is pretty boring. Competent, but boring. The team consists of Citizen V (the team patriot), Techno (the tech guy), Atlas (the big, strong guy), Meteorite (the hard-nosed female character), Songbird (the ingénue), and Mach-1 (the guy in a powered suit). Then, about three-pages from end, while the rest of the team is watching about themselves on TV, Citizen V strolls in without his mask on, and also without a face, because he’s actually Helmut Zemo and the whole team are members of his Masters of Evil team from Roger Stern’s “Under Siege” story that ran in Avengers #270-277 (so again, not really the team’s first appearance).
It’s impossible to imagine this happening today. Someone would leak something to a rumor site or Marvel would tell a mainstream news outlet the Tuesday before Thunderbolts #1 hit shelves. At the time, this was something a friend told you about, and told you nothing about it except that you absolutely had to go buy Thunderbolts. That twist is one of my all-time favorite moments reading comics, and one bolstered by how great the subsequent eleven issues are, as Busiek and Bagley explore how being seen as heroes affects (or doesn’t) the Thunderbolts. Of course, the book lasted past that initial arc as well, becoming a Marvel mainstay.
This week’s question: what’s your favorite introduction to a volume of comics?
Scott Cederlund: Reading Michael Chabon’s introduction to the Image/Dynamite American Flagg! collection, you’d think that AF creator Howard Chaykin was a spitfire of a comic book maker and you’d be right. From that introduction, you can tell that Chabon has spent a lot of time poring over old issues of American Flagg!, trying to discover the source of the alchemy that Chaykin was concocting. His image of Chaykin rests somewhere between artistic genius and journeyman as he focuses a lot on the craft of American Flagg! Viewing AF as the perfect blend of pop, cynicism and an eye towards the future, Chabon’s piece on the comic identifies it as a great piece of American literature/art from the early 1980s.
This piece was first originally published as an essay named “The Killer Hook” in Chabon’s 2008 book Maps and Legends, a collection of essays on everything from architecture to Will Eisner and Sherlock Holmes. In those essays, Chabon was trying to map out his own influences and idols within his own work. There are a couple of essays that talk about comics in the book but the essay on Chaykin serves as much as an introduction to the creator as it does to the creation. Chabon’s writing about Chaykin places Chaykin in a much broader pantheon of American artists than just among the small pool of comic creators. Chaykin isn’t talked about in the context of Frank Miller or John Byrne. Chabon compares and contrasts him to musicians like Brian Wilson and Paul Simon, to Orson Welles (and AF! to Citizen Kane,) and to writers like Chandler and Hammett.
Chabon’s introduction to American Flagg! sings the book’s praises while making an argument for it to be considered among the great works of American popular art. “American Flagg! stands at the glorious midpoint, at that difficult fulcrum between innocence and experience, romance and disillusion, adventure and satire, the unashamedly commercial and the purely aesthetic… Such balancing acts have always been the greatest feats of American popular art,” he concludes. Chabon’s examination of Chaykin and his hinted at the disappointment that nothing Chaykin did afterwards found that perfect balance sets up the experience of reading American Flagg! as something more than just another comic book. Yes, it is a comic book but it’s also Howard Chaykin, an American storyteller, right there on each and every page showing you the world but through his distinct and creative point of view.
Joe Gualtieri: There are quite a few comics introductions I love. A few weeks ago, I wrote a little about how the intro and foreword help make the 1988 version of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told a superior version of such a collection. With his introduction for The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore created a seminal piece of superhero comics criticism. The introductions to the different editions of early Justice League International collections create an indelible portrait of Keith Giffen as a serpentine figure, forever lurking around the corner and hissing “Jussssticcccce League” at editor Andy Helfer.
Arguably the one that’s made the biggest impression on me though, is Warren Ellis’s for Hellblazer: Fear and Loathing, which collects the title’s transition from DC’s non-imprint “mature readers” imprint to Vertigo. It is a fine example of a formulaic introduction. As Ellis himself notes, “where’s the checklist? I’ve pretty much covered the ‘I know Garth, which is why I’m writing this’ bit, done the quick bio bit, done the history bit, and the sad licrit bit.” What makes the piece particularly interesting is that “sad litcrit bit”:
What’s John protecting these things from? Authority. With the capital A. These are stories about what authority does to people, about the poison in its foundations. You can substitute Authority for Government, for the Establishment, even for God, and it all means the same thing: someone exerting control they did not earn and do not deserve, grinding lives into shit largely because they feel like it.
Three years after writing that passage, Ellis would be writing a superhero comic titled The Authority. Two to three years after that, Ellis would create a stir on his message board, The Warren Ellis Forum, by declaring that the Authority were the villains of their own comic. This is not really the place for a long, drawn out discussion about authorial intent, but the connection between The Authority and this passage has long fascinated me, especially given that The Authority is very much a liberal power fantasy in a way rarely seen in the genre since the early days of Superman in Action Comics. The passage arguably even anticipates the structure of The Authority, since the in the first arc they take on a singular government, in the second the corrupt establishment running an alternate Earth, and finally, they fight god. So it’s totally weird, but I love this intro because of how it connects to a completely different work by the same author.
Mike Sterling: I’m actually not one to read introductions,
to be frank. I usually skip right over ‘em and plunge right into the
funnybookin’ for which I actually purchased the book. There are always
exceptions, of course, particularly when it’s a foreword by a person (or
persons) of particular interest to me. There’s that Penn Jillette intro to a
volume of Preacher, or an old college professor of mine writing the
foreword to a Sandman volume…but the trade paperback introduction that
sticks in my mind is not so much because of who wrote it but what it was
One of dopiest events to come out of the late '80s comics boom was the “A Death in the Family” Batman story, in which fans were encouraged to call actual phone numbers, in those pre-easy-access-to-the-Internet days, to vote on whether or not Batman’s latest iteration of Robin, Jason Todd, would survive his assault by the Joker. Of course, the majority voted thumbs-down, because who doesn’t like a good killing, and when all was said and done, demand was so great to read a story in which the Joker gained diplomatic immunity by becoming the Iranian ambassador (sigh…yes, really) that a cheap trade paperback was rush-printed. It was only $3.95 in its initial printing, so sure, it was terrible, but such good value! And adding to that value was a new introduction written, most likely, by editor Denny O'Neil.
The introduction was titled “The Death of a Boy Wonder,” supposedly written by “Dr. Socrates S. Rodor, Professor Emeritus of Twentieth Century History, Gotham University.” It was written an “in-universe” essay, commenting upon archaeologically-derived knowledge of the existence of super-heroes, and in particular the history of Batman and his multiple Robins. Of particular note is the emphasis placed on specific durations of time, such as noting that Dick Grayson’s tenure as Robin lasted about six years, and that Batman was partnerless for about a year and half. Such specific references are rare in the actual comics, so it was unusual and interesting to see them mentioned here.
There is a sense of humor present as well, with some in-jokes and references that were probably borne of whatever insanely tight deadline under which this foreword was produced. It’s noted that in the time of Professor Rodor, much information about Batman’s period was lost in the “Great Implosion,” almost certainly a nod to the “DC Implosion” of title cancellations suffered by the publisher in the 1970s. There’s a footnote wondering why Robin’s brightly-colored costume contrasted so with Batman’s darker coloring, which is perhaps a reference to the old joke about “Robin, the Boy Target” (“he’s there to draw fire”). There’s the aside suggesting that Batman was was too dour a person to be as frivolous as to attach “Bat-” prefixes to all his equipment, and here’s the comment that Batman in no way would have encouraged Robin’s “Holy _____!” exclamations.
This introduction, in an odd little way, is a deconstruction of sorts of the Batman myth, in line with Frank Miller’s own examination of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ examination of the genre in toto in Watchmen. It looks at the specifics of the character, holds up some pieces of it for closer examination and near-dismissal, and as a whole is probably more entertaining and informative that the reprinted comics it prefaces. So of course this foreword has been removed from more recent editions of this trade paperback (along with O'Neil’s back cover quote about how it would be a “cheap trick” to bring Todd back…which DC eventually did). It’s worth seeking out the early versions of the A Death in the Family trade just for the introduction. You should read the comics, too, at least once, just to see the sort of thing folks would get excited about in the 1980s.
Whatever Happened to the Man of Miracles?
“As it transpired, I was quite touched: They made a bonfire on the wastelands that was once Trafalgar Square and on it heaped their comic books, their films and novels filled with horror, science fiction, fantasy, and as it burned they cheered; cheered as the curling, burning pages fluttered up into the night; cheered to be done with time when wonder was a sad and wretched thing made only out of paper, out of celluloid.”
from Miracleman #16 (December, 1989)
Alan Moore ended the era of the superman. He first did it in 1986 when he sent the Superman of Siegel and Shuster off into the realms of memory with the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583, almost immediately following DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths which reset the DC universe and marked a clear departure from the old DC Comics. In that story, the Superman of the Golden, Silver and Bronze age is given one last adventure as all of those corny, aged villains come back, more bloodthirsty than ever. It’s one last remembrance of friends and foes before John Byrne reimagines the character into something not quite as magical. And then Moore finally ended the idea of a superheroic nirvana with the destruction and resurrection of London in Miracleman #15 (Nov 1988) and #16 (Dec 1989.) That conclusion of his “Olympus” arc accuses DC and Marvel Comics of every atrocity that allowed to happen within the pages of their comics and blithely ignored. Sure it was all imaginary stories but did that make them any less real?
Miracleman is such a product of its time that when Marvel Comics recently reprinted the long-out-of-print comics, it was basically ignored. It was like you could almost hear fandom’s collective yawn of “been there, done that.” After all, the Alan Moore of the mid-late 1980s directly influenced the tenor of comics for at least 10 years, that is if the strong reach of Moore isn’t still very active in the most mainstream of superhero comics today. Geoff Johns has spent a career trying to rewrite Moore so the general direction of DC is haunted by the ghost of Moore. Moore and Frank Miller wrote the textbook on superhero deconstruction that’s still used by the likes of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar.
For Moore, that legacy is mostly cemented by Watchmen, his mic drop moment in superhero comic books. But Miracleman both predates and postdates Watchmen, begun as a serial in the British Warrior magazine in April 1982 before wrapping up over seven years later as a semi-monthly Eclipse Comics publication. If “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was Moore’s gently rocking the Superman myth to a gentle and unending slumber, Miracleman counted off every sin of the superhero and laid them all down at the superman’s feet.
As Moore progresses through the Miracleman story, he begins it by wondering what a C.C. Beck Billy Batson character might be like if they suddenly found themselves in 1980s Britain with the power of a god? Middle-aged Mike Moran is a bit overweight, probably overworked, and wakes up from dreams of flying through space with pounding headaches. Rediscovering his magic word, “Kimota!” he becomes a blonde, chiseled god. Even his thinking is so much clearer that it’s like he’s a different person. From finding his maker, his “father,” to discovering others like himself, Miracleman’s story is about him becoming something more than human. He’s not just the next evolutionary step; he’s the next one thousand steps.
Moore and his various artists’ stories are about how a god operates first as a superhero and then as a man. But the twist isn’t that the god learns any real lesson. In the end, Miracleman accepts his godhood, his place above humanity and sets to reign from on high in his new Olympus. For all of the sins of the superhero, Moore judges them to be apart from humanity and unanswerable to them. This isn’t praise of the superhero; it’s a condemnation of them.
It’s odd that in all of Moore’s superhero work, the one character he remains somewhat sympathetic to is Superman. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” gives Superman and Clark Kent the sendoff that they deserve. The story, drawn by Curt Swan, with inks by George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger, sees the future in which these childish characters become more “grim and gritty,” more homicidal. The story is a mercy killing as much as anything else, protecting the original Superman from what comics would become in the late 1980s and 1990s. The irony is that this is the future that Moore himself created primarily in Watchmen. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” serves as an apology for Watchmen but it also serves to protect the story of Superman, no matter what may happen to the characters afterwards.
In Miracleman, particularly in the final “Olympus” storyline (issues 11-16), Moore doesn’t show the character the same kindness. He’s far from being protective of Mike Moran, his wife, his daughter or any of the other heroes or villains introduced in the story. His Miracleman story shows a god remembering who he is and then taking his place among a pantheon. London and humanity are collateral damage in this world where middle-aged men and children wear the bodies of gods. Or are the gods wearing the bodies of middle-aged men and children and then discarding them in favor of their godhood? The damage done is both emotional and physical. The destruction of Liz Moran is no less frightening than the desolation of London.
It’s almost funny how much DC’s movies look like they’re embracing the ideas of Alan Moore’s Miracleman while Marvel chooses to ignore them. The idea of cities falling out of the sky is commonplace in Marvel’s movie kingdom while DC’s The Man of Steel visually embraces parts of Moore’s “Olympus” storyline. The final battle between Zod and Superman in Zack Snyder’s film looks an awful lot like John Totleben’s scenes of chaos and destruction. But Snyder in that movie didn’t follow up on the consequences of the fight the same way that Moore did in his final issue. Once again, it’s the wrong lessons of an Alan Moore story applied to one of those future iterations of the Superman that Moore tried to spare the character of back in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
Alan Moore’s Miracleman still remains one of the great superhero comics. But what once looked like the celebration of the superman now looks like its condemnation. John Totleben, the final artist in Moore’s run, ends the story with Miracleman in a military dress-style version of his own costume, sitting in the heights of Olympus, sipping on a glass of wine and looking down on mankind. It’s not a protective gaze of the character but more a gaze that puts Miracleman and mankind in their places, one sitting high above the other. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” ends with a wink and a nod to the reader, letting them in on the secret of the way that Moore saved Superman. Miracleman: Olympus ends with a warning about placing these characters to high on a pedestal.
And much like what we all took away from Watchmen, the lessons of Miracleman fell on deaf ears.
I miss the Silver Age Superman to this day.
– Scott Cederlund
It Takes A Villain is TWC’s semi-whenever-the-hell-Mick-wakes-up column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role, brought to you by your favorite cartoon animal, Mick Martin
rogues’ gallery is a gold mine. The dark knight’s franchise has
produced some of the most memorable and enduring bad guys in
comicdom. Ask any random comic-book-uninitiated civilian to name as
many super-villains as he/she can, and you’re likely to get at least
half Bat villains. Joker. Riddler. Catwoman. Penguin. Bane.
There’s a lot of sexy and a lot of cool in Batman’s villains, but neither the sex nor the cool has touched Oswald Cobblepot. There are a few reasons for that. There’s his physical presence. He’s short, fat, and ugly. There’s his age. And there’s the fact that in the group therapy session that is the rogues’ gallery of Batman, Oswald Cobblepot doesn’t have as obvious a place. The villains of Batman - particularly the Joker - owe a large part of their popularity to their insanity. Whether they actually are as free as they want us to think, characters like the Joker evoke ultimate, unbridled freedom in their insanity. But Penguin has never seemed a true part of that fraternity. Sure, he’s eccentric. He’s got the outdated FDR thing going on and there’s the crazy gadgets and the penguin motif, but he’s always seemed like a gangster who was just slightly off-kilter because, after all, it’s a comic book so he needs a little crazy. He’s always seemed much more concerned about the dollar-and-cents than the likes of Joker, Two Face, the Riddler, or even Catwoman (whose motivation for crime is at least sixty percent thrill). Not to mention that while the villains of Marvel and DC are flush with animal themes, those bad guys usually pick a beast that’s scary or tough or at least sneaky. The Rhino. Doctor Octopus. Man-Bull. Hell, Catwoman. The predators. The behemoths. Oswald Cobblepot picked a short, squat bird that doesn’t fly. He seems like he should be in the world of The Tick and Squirrel Girl. He’s ugly, old, uncool, and unscary. He’s not the Joker. He’s a joke.
those reasons - and because the wonderful mini Penguin: Pain and Prejudice was released around
the same time as the dawn of the New 52 and was drowned by it (it’s
actually not clear to me if this is a New 52 book or not; there was
no “NEW 52” on the cover of the trade or the single issues,
yet in some panels Batman’s outfit looks like his New 52 get-up) -
there’s a good chance you never heard of Penguin: Pain and
Prejudice. And that’s a shame. On the back cover of the trade is
a pull quote asking if this is “Penguin's Killing Joke.”
Look up the trade on Amazon and half the reviews make the same
comparison. Most of them even use “Penguin's Killing
Joke” as the review title. It’s kind of an annoying
comparison. It’s easy. It’s obvious. But it’s not wrong.
story opens on Cobblepot’s birth, and the first two pages tell us so
much that if that was all novelist Gregg Hurwitz and artist Szymon
Kudranski showed us of the villain’s childhood, that would be enough.
Oswald’s father is so shocked by his newborn son’s strange face, he
drops Oswald the first time he holds him. The toddler survives
perhaps only because of the love of his doting mother, who is as blind
to his ugliness as the literally blind woman Penguin falls in love
with later in the story. His mother’s embrace is the only love Oswald
knows and so, on the second page when we see the child forced to lay
at the foot of his parents’ bed as they have sex, we see exactly how
and where the Penguin was born.
with Penguin’s past is his present. He rules over the Iceberg Lounge
while dealing vengeance with the sadistic cruelty of a Keyser Soze;
punishing not his transgressors, but their families, friends, lovers,
etc. Batman gets the villain’s scent when Penguin hires some pros to
steal unique, priceless jewelry from the rich and famous of Gotham.
In fact, at least part of the first scene depicting one of the
robberies – a man in a ski mask trying to tear a necklace from a
rich woman’s neck – makes it tough to not think of the birth of
Penguin’s greatest enemy. We learn that the bloody robberies are for
nothing more important than providing treasured presents to Penguin’s
aging – and seemingly vegetative – mother. While lording over his
particular corner of Gotham’s crime world, Penguin meets a lovely
blind woman named Cassandra who he romances. He refuses, however, to
let her touch his face. She falls for him just as hard as he falls
for her, and though he tries to protect her from the dark aspects of
his life, eventually the authorities’ pursuit becomes impossible to
avoid. His humiliation drives him to a self-destructive assault on
Batman, Gotham, and the ghosts of tormentors long dead.
art is gorgeous, and rather than letting the Penguin’s ugliness work
against him, he uses it to great effect. The Penguin has never looked
more chilling, more dreadful, or scarier. One of the most memorable
sequences is in the first issue, when Penguin is tormenting a young man
who insulted him earlier in the evening. He isn’t tormenting him
physically, but describing to him all the things his small army of
thugs and killers have done to his loved ones while he’s been
oblivious. In one panel, Penguin is looking at his watch. In the
next, he looks from the watch to the man who is crying on the floor.
The only difference between the two panels are the lack of a dialogue
bubble in the second panel, and the movement of the eyes. It’s
simple, perfect, and quietly terrifying.
– though not often – John Kalisz’s color choices take away from
the art. Usually, they work perfectly. There are distinct differences
between scenes in the present and those in Penguin’s tortured past.
The scenes of Penguin’s childhood have a kind of faded amber hue. But
everywhere, especially the present scenes, is saturated with shadow.
Perhaps oversaturated. This is the only way the colors take
away from the art, as it can sometimes confuse the action.
is smartly kept even more in shadow than normal. We hardly even see
his mask in most scenes, much less his skin. Batman is not only a
target of Oswald’s envy, but he is the adult manifestation of the
bullies who helped to make Penguin’s childhood a living hell. In the
beginning of the second issue, after Batman crashes into Penguin’s
Iceberg Lounge and questions him about the attacks, Oswald is
literally transplanted to the past as we see Batman as one of
Oswald’s bullying brothers and Oswald as a young boy cringing against
a tree. After Batman leaves, the scene ends with a memory of a young
Oswald cradling the broken body of a bird one of his brothers shot
and killed just for fun.
portrayal in the story is almost perfect. My only (very minor)
complaint is a scene toward the end of the series. Talking with
Gordon, Batman says something that seems to partly uphold Penguin’s
argument that Gotham pursues him while ignoring the crimes of others.
It’s not that I don’t think Batman would be that thoughtful, but that
I preferred to see Batman through Penguin’s eyes for the duration of
the series. As an unforgiving bully.
don’t know if I would’ve necessarily doubted someone if they told me
a skilled writer could render Penguin sympathetic and tragic while
still being deadly honest about the monster he is, but it’s still a
wonderful surprise. Hurwitz’s Penguin is ruthless, abominable,
horrible, and yet exactly the man none of us could blame him for
becoming. His treatment at the hands of his father and brothers is
disgusting and absolutely believable. I wouldn’t say it makes you
root for him. It doesn’t, and if it did it would make itmuch
less of a story. The Penguin’s history is as real as it could be.
as Thomas Wayne is such a giant figure in Bruce Wayne’s history,
Oswald’s mother is a giant in his. Similar to how Kudranski
treats Batman, we never fully see Oswald’s mother. Most prominent are
her full, red lips. We see them kissing Oswald’s cheek when he
impresses her with a toy gadget that springs out a bouquet of roses
like a jack-in-the-box. We see them framing her smile in the
reflection of a snow globe he makes for her. While it is never
inappropriate, the image of her lips is clearly suggestive. Oswald’s
story is as Oedipal as you can get.
as Hurwitz’s story humanizes Penguin, Kudranski’s art makes the
sillier aspects of the villain genuinely intimidating and scary. When
Oswald launches rockets at Gotham filled with violent birds, we don’t
think of the comical clockwork Penguin bombs of old. We think of
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and the terror seems all too
interesting little touch that at first annoyed me but which I
eventually warmed to were some well-timed Joker cameos. A couple of
times, Penguin accidentally walks in on a private room in the Iceberg
Lounge that Joker has apparently rented for some “private time.”
We see the clown prince in situations as depraved and deadly as we
would expect; like wearing women’s underwear while standing over a
live goat tied to a spit. At first, it annoyed me because I thought
it was just some easy humor. Then, because I thought “Oh of course
we have to have Joker in it a little bit, don’t we?” But as
I read on I saw a sharper point. As I wrote above, Penguin’s never
truly seemed fully a part of the more truly deranged Batman
villains. Penguin: Pain and Prejudice proves, I think, that
we’ve always been wrong about that. Cobblepot is no more about the
dollar-and-cents of the thing than Joker or Riddler or Catwoman.
Penguin’s brief stumbles into Joker’s depraved little exercises are
more than cheap gags. They’re occasional reminders to Oswald –
whether he heeds them or not – just how batshit crazy he really is.
Pain and Prejudice is forgotten
gold. Find it. Read it.
This week’s question: Who’s your favorite cover artist?
Logan Polk: I’m torn with this question. For me cover art is like a song; I love ones that tell stories, but I also really dig big splashy pieces that usually don’t contribute much to anything at all. But, just like there are songs you hear and you think “I must buy that album,” immediately, there’s one cover artist who will get me to pick up an issue of anything, and that’s Alex Ross. I don’t think he’s the best in the business, probably not even close, and he’s likely done as many bad covers as he has good ones, but if I see a Ross cover I will pick up the book. I may not always buy it, unless it’s in the discount bin, but there’s always a moment I’ll at least consider it.
Joe Gualtieri: One of the great ironies of the current age
of comics is that even as the collectible side of the industry has placed a
great emphasis than ever before on covers (witness both the variant market and
how certain back issues become hot solely because of their covers), for about
the past 15 years there’s been an increasing divorce between the cover and the
content. Long gone are the days when Mort Weisinger would come up with a cover
idea to dictate the story (I was tempted to make Weisinger my answer, despite
him not actually being a cover artist). A lot of the blame for this squarely
falls on Marvel’s shoulders, where the Quesada/Jemas regime began to favor
“iconic” covers that told you nothing about the content of the issue (and
crucially, could be kept on a comic even if the contents changed without making
it returnable). I’ve never been overly pleased by this trend, but forced to
pick one cover artist, I’m going to pick the artist arguably as responsible for
the trend as anyone else, Bryan Hitch.
Hitch was a solid artist for years before joining Warren Ellis on Stormwatch volume two, but the combination worked remarkably well, so well that Ellis revived the title as The Authority to keep working with Hitch. Critical discussion of that work has usually centered on the widescreen presentation within the comic itself, but I adore those covers. They strike a balance between telling something about the story inside (as they are not all static shots of the group’s members) and providing iconic images. When Hitch moved to Marvel and The Ultimates, his covers became less representative of the story, but still managed to convey more character other those for other books in the line.
I’d never argue that Hitch is the best cover artist in comics history, but that run of covers on The Authority and The Ultimates is solid, unforgettable bunch that for better or for worse, helped to define the comic cover for the twentieth-first century.
Mike Sterling: In thinking about my favorite cover artists,
I suppose one should really focus on technical proficiency, design, a
little bit of flashiness, and so on. However, I’m going to have to go with
just straight-up nostalgia in my choice.
As a young Mikester slowly feeling his way through the comics art form in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the superhero I took the most liking to was, of course, the most popular of them all: Superman. And boy, did I read a lot of Superman, in digests, in more high-end reprint volumes (as previously discussed), and, naturally, in the monthly newsstand comics. Curt Swan was my preferred artist on the Super-books (as also previously discussed) but he rarely provided cover art.
The art team that did frequently provide the covers was Ross Andru and Dick Giordano, whose work became as familiar to me as Swan’s. I remember thinking it was odd that they didn’t provide the artwork inside – not that I was complaining, because, as I said, as long as it was Swan I was happy. “Maybe they’ll get to do some interior work, someday,” I thought, ignorant as I was of the artistic history of both these talented gentlemen. I would later learn of Giordano’s long history in the business, as well as Andru’s (who did draw Spider-Man for many a year, after all).
Eventually, I got to experience Ross Andru’s storytelling first hand in the Superman and His Incredible Fortress of Solitude treasury edition…Giordano didn’t ink the story, but he was there with his longtime cover-collaborator on the wraparound exterior!
Andru and Giordano didn’t just do covers for Superman, but across the DC publishing line. It was on Superman, however, that they left their mark on me, forever entwined with my love of Curt Swan’s work on the character. It wasn’t the flashiest. It wasn’t the most dynamic. Still, though, the sight of their cover art always gives me a good strong poke in the nostalgia gland,reminding me of that time when every Superman story was fresh and new to me, and every copy of his comic that I came across and hadn’t yet read held the promise of entertaining adventure. .
Earlier today, I posted something about Alan Moore’s forthcoming novel Jerusalem. I titled it, “What is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem About?” Judging by the Tumblr notes, it’s one of the more popular posts on this site in some time.
In a sarcastic response to my post on Facebook, someone whose opinion I usually respect replied “I bet it’s about rape.” This is a common complaint about Moore’s work, because it often features incidents of violent sexual assault, and I wanted to address it.
No Alan Moore work that I am aware of has ever been ‘about’ rape, any more than Citizen Kane is ‘about’ running a newspaper or Synecdoche, NY is about producing a play. As Roger Ebert was fond of noting, it isn’t important what a story is about, what matters is “how it is about it.” How the telling of the story reflects our lives and experiences, and what emotions it evokes.
Many of Alan Moore’s stories have rape or violent sexual incidents in them, as indeed, many lives have such tragedies befall them. What matters most of all isn’t that his stories feature rape, or how many, or why. What matters is that he has never, ever depicted rape as anything other than an horrific event, as indeed it is in real life. Such incidents are sometimes key to a given story, sometimes they are one of the many events that occur in the lives of his characters. Rape is something that happens in the world, all too often. Should one of the best writers alive and working today not write about it? Would that other writers, and other people, were so committed to a realistic depiction of the truth about one of the worst things that can happen to a human being.
I know easily a dozen people in my life that have been the victims of rape or sexual abuse, and indeed, I had an abusive childhood myself, although not sexual abuse. I take it very seriously, and I believe Alan Moore does too. I don’t think he thinks it’s funny, and I don’t think it’s a part of his work for facetious or cynical reasons. I do think he intends to provoke thought, and in the case of Miracleman, I think he was, in his clumsy and then-primitive way, trying to empower abuse victims. His more recent works, particularly Lost Girls and Voice of the Fire, have been far more confident and effective in addressing the subject.
I hope this site attracts readers who are smart enough not to join the crowd of Moore-haters that latch on to any easy slur they can aim at him in the hopes of taking him down a peg. Moore is very often the subject of insults and derision in the comics community because he has been so critical of its unfair and legally questionable practices for so many years now. It would be hyperbole to say Moore has been raped by the comics industry, but it is certainly worth noting that his trust has been abused, and that he understands what it feels like to be violated. I think that understanding comes through in his work in a powerful way, even if it does provide weak-tea ammunition to those who wish to diminish his standing as a writer.
– Alan David Doane
Photo by Mitch Jenkins
Alan Moore’s new prose novel Jerusalem has long been in the works, and now we know when it will be released: September, 2016. Less than a year from now, we will once again enter the mind of Alan Moore through language alone, as we did through his masterful first novel The Voice of the Fire (available from Top Shelf Productions).
Gosh London has published Moore’s promotional blurb for Jerusalem, and it sounds like readers are in for more of a mind-blowing experience than even Voice of the Fire provided:
In the half a square mile of decay and demolition that was England’s Saxon capital, eternity is loitering between the firetrap tower blocks. Embedded in the grubby amber of the district’s narrative among its saints, kings, prostitutes and derelicts a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-coloured puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them. Fiends last mentioned in the Book of Tobit wait in urine-scented stairwells, the delinquent spectres of unlucky children undermine a century with tunnels, and in upstairs parlours labourers with golden blood reduce fate to a snooker tournament.
Disappeared lanes yield their own voices, built from lost words and forgotten dialect, to speak their broken legends and recount their startling genealogies, family histories of shame and madness and the marvellous. There is a conversation in the thunderstruck dome of St. Paul’s cathedral, childbirth on the cobblestones of Lambeth Walk, an estranged couple sitting all night on the cold steps of a Gothic church-front, and an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters. An art exhibition is in preparation, and above the world a naked old man and a beautiful dead baby race along the Attics of the Breath towards the heat death of the universe.
An opulent mythology for those without a pot to piss in, through the labyrinthine streets and pages of Jerusalem tread ghosts that sing of wealth and poverty; of Africa, and hymns, and our threadbare millennium. They discuss English as a visionary language from John Bunyan to James Joyce, hold forth on the illusion of mortality post-Einstein, and insist upon the meanest slum as Blake’s eternal holy city. Fierce in its imagining and stupefying in its scope, this is the tale of everything, told from a vanished gutter.
This week’s question: To celebrate the new year, what’s your favorite #1 issue?
Tim Durkee: My favorite first issue is Justice League. I’m referring to the 1987 series written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis with pencils by Kevin Maguire. I was always a fan of the JLA, even the Detroit era. DC’s ads (featuring a picture of the cover of the first issue) for the book had me anticipating the release, and I was not disappointed after that long – or what seemed to be a long – wait for the release. Everything about that cover just teased the readers that this was going to be a very different JLA book than what we were used to. I knew it was going to be a fun title; I don’t know how I knew that as I did not have any inside information about it. I followed the book seriously for about two- dozen issues and then casually for another two dozen. The cover is still one of my favorites, and the first 24 issues along with the first two annuals are in my “Forever Box: not for sale, not for trade.” Yes, I do have several of those. Just the right amount of action, along with a well-written cast makes this version a great read. Grab a copy of the first issue and see for yourself.
Logan Polk: This might be the hardest comic book related question anyone’s ever asked me. My collection is filled with first issues to series, many of which never saw a proper end, with just as many that are nothing but relaunches for book that needed a sales bump. To pick my favorite? That’s a Herculean task of the geeky kind.
The obvious choice is probably X-Force #1. I know, I know; typical ‘90s comic, Liefeld, blah blah, but like I said in last week’s QT, it was Cable that pulled me completely in to the world of comics. Still, other than the cover, I don’t actually remember too much about that first issue. Probably because I didn’t read it until months after it hit the stands, possibly a year.
Qualifying something as your favorite would mean it would have to have had an impact, making itself memorable in a significant way. That narrows down the choices a great deal, and the first #1 issue I recall doing that was The Maxx #1 by Sam Kieth and William Messner-Loebs. I still remember opening that book and being both perplexed and thoroughly engaged by the dialogue and the pseudo-superheroics of Kieth’s Br'er Lappin; the juxtaposition of his grimy cityscape and The Outback, the way his characters weren’t action figures (outside of Maxx that is), the opening monologue from his cardboard box, the ride in the police car, the introductions of Julie, Gone and those creepy Isz. It’s a series I’ve owned in multiple formats, and that first issue has never gone out of my mind.
Mike Sterling: Picking out my favorite first issue is a challenge…which series are my favorite is a lot easier, since those are much longer bodies of work with which to form an opinion. But trying to remember just that one issue, separate from your memories of the issues that followed, the single installment that grabbed your eyeballs and fed itself directly into your mind, embedded forever in your fondest comic-reading memories – well, that’s certainly the trick, isn’t it?
There have been plenty of great first issues, of course. Fantastic Four is a brilliant transition between the sci-fi/monster books of 1950s Atlas and the 1960s superhero universe of Marvel. The first issue of the recent She-Hulk series really knocked me for a loop. I still have some fondness for the debut issue of John Byrne’s Alpha Flight. And so on. I appreciate these as solid examples of comic-booking, but they lack the specific emotional component that made me decide on what exactly is my favorite #1.
And that would be The Saga of the Swamp Thing #1 from 1982.
“Whoa, now hold on there a minute, Mike,” those of you who have some familiarity with my particular tastes may be saying to yourselves.
“Now, picking a Swamp Thing comic is no surprise, but the Marty Pasko/Tom Yeates
Saga the of Swamp Thing #1 and not the original considered-by-everyone-to-be-a-classic
Swamp Thing #1 by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson from 1972? Have you
done flipped your gourd at last?”
Well, lemme 'splain. My entry into the world of Swamp Thing fandom was two-fold: through old copies of the '70s series found in a used book store, and the ancient Nickelodeon program Video Comics which would present a comic panel-by-panel onscreen with narration and sound effects (as seen here). I spent some time piecing together that original series, in whatever order I could find them, reading and rereading the books once the holes were filled, and wondering what I was missing. I knew those Swamp Thing stories were out there, and I knew the series was over and done, with no more continuing adventures coming after I completed that run. Well, aside maybe from a guest-appearance or of Brave and the Bold or DC Comics Presents here and there, but that was hardly the same.
Until, of course, the new Saga of the Swamp Thing series was announced. None of the folks from the original series were involved, beyond co-creator Len Wein as editor, but that was fine. The old comics were great, but they were the old comics. They were done. Wein and Wrightson and Kraft and Michelinie and Redondo weren’t doing new stories, and even as I was putting together that original run, I realized this was a finite thing. Once that was done, that was it.A new series, however…! That’s a promise of a new issue only a month away from the current issue you have in your hot little hands! And you don’t need to go out on a treasure hunt to find that next installment, as it’ll be coming, freshly printed, to a newsstand near you!
Sure, that first issue of Saga of the Swamp Thing wasn’t the same as the older stuff, and maybe it wasn’t quite up to the classic material in the original 10 issues by Wein and Wrightson. But it was good, and for someone who was certain that he was just about to have all the Swamp Thing there ever was, knowing that, for at least a while, there was going to be brand-new, previously untold tales of his favorite character coming each and every month was welcome news indeed.
So that’s why Saga of the Swamp Thing #1 is my favorite first issue. Not so much about the actual quality of the content (which, as previously noted, I enjoyed just fine) but for the promise that single comic book held: that there would be more of these Swamp Thing comic books forthcoming.
Joe Gualtieri: This question was a lot harder than it seemed on the surface. TV pilots are notorious for not always resembling what a show becomes, and the same is true of comics series as well. There’s also the matter some of the best comics #1s are not really #1s at all, like Amazing Fantasy #15 or New X-Men #114 (which is surely better than any X-Men comic that actually has a #1 in the corner box). It was sorely tempting to subvert the intent of the question and go with Invisibles v3 #1, which is actually the last issue of the series.
Ultimately though, I was over-thinking it and missing the obvious—Action Comics #1, specifically the Superman story. Taken out of context, it’s an action-packed story that does a great job of establishing Superman as a champion of the oppressed and the love triangle between Superman, Lois Lane, and Clark Kent. Lane, interestingly, isn’t an ace reporter for the Daily Star, but instead an advice columnist; her fiery personality is all-there, however, as she slaps a gangster who interrupts her date with Kent.
What really makes me love the first Superman strip though, is Philip Wylie’s novel Gladiator. Published in 1930, Gladiator is a turgid sci-fi novel about Hugo Danner, whose father experimented on him in the womb, resulting in Danner possessing super-strength, invulnerability, and the ability to leap great distances. Sound familiar? The difference between Danner and Superman is one of personality. Danner is a whiny shit who agonizes over what he should do with his great power. In a way, you might say Wylie invented the Marvel superhero, 30 years before Stan Lee. The issue of whether or not Jerry Siegel read Gladiator has been somewhat controversial, but apparently he admitted reading it in an unpublished autobiography. Anyone who reads both Gladiator and Action #1 would have little doubt that was the case though, as many of the vignettes in Action come off as direct responses to scenes from Gladiator. Unlike Danner, Superman never hesitates to use his powers to do good and in his very first adventure tackles gangsters, wife-beaters, corrupt politicians, and saves an innocent man from the electric chair. In context, the whole comic reads like a response to Gladiator, one that finds it wanting and desires to show how a man with superpowers should act. It makes for an exhilarating and generally up-lifting read, and means that the aspirational aspects of Superman, which are the best parts of the characters, were there from day one
This week’s question: What is the greatest comics gift you’ve
ever received? TWC editor/publisher Alan David Doane shared his response Monday to coincide with Stan Lee’s 93rd birthday. Now let’s find out what everyone else had to say:
Logan Polk: Oddly enough, I’ve received very few comics as gifts in my 20-plus years of reading. Even if that weren't the case, I think Uncanny X-Men #201 would still be my favorite of the bunch. Written by Chris Claremont and penciled by Rick Leonardi, it features the first appearance of Nathan Summers, son of Scott Summers and Madelyn Pryor, the young baby that would grow up to become Cable.
Cable is my favorite character in all of comics; in fact the mystery of his backstory is largely responsible for fueling my interest in the medium as a teen. So, of course after tons of speculation, and eventually a reveal of his lineage, Uncanny #201 became kind of a lesser holy grail, with New Mutants #87, his first appearance as Cable, being the true biggie. While I’m sure I’d have preferred the more expensive NM #87 at the time, I’ll never forget the smile on my Dad’s face when I opened the carefully wrapped so-it-doesn’t-look-like-a-comic box with #201, and how happy it made him to see me freak out about it. It may be my favorite gift of all time.
Joe Gualtieri: In 1989, like seemingly everyone else on the planet, eight-year-old me was Batman mad. I watched reruns of the ‘60s TV series, got the lousy Toybiz action figures, and started reading the monthly comic (my first superhero comic). Come Christmas morning, there was a treasure haul of Batman-related items under the tree, mainly more upscale Toybiz items, but there was also The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.
Originally published in 1988, by the Warner Books division created to sell Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, GBSET followed a similarly-titled Superman volume and served to celebrate Batman’s fiftieth anniversary. It’s the second of DC’s more-or-less every ten years rotation of printing such collections. In the ‘70s, Crown Publishing released the From the ‘30s to the ‘70s line, which are some of, if not the earliest comic-sized reprint collections. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s had the Greatest Stories line. The aughts used the same title for the line, but placed the character or team’s name in front (so you had Batman: the Greatest Stories Ever Told). Now, in the 2010s, there’s the A Celebration of 75 Years line. Among its other influences, I blame GBSET with making me enjoy picking up the different versions to compare them. I admit my prejudice, but the presentation of the eighties/nineties line strikes me as the best of the four. The introductions, forewords, and endnotes all give a sense of context, of how the stories were chosen, and of stories that did not make the cut. They’re also illustrated with tons of covers from stories not included in the volume, and to this day, I get thrill whenever I see any of those covers, because I spent years wanting to read many of them.
As for the actual comics included, GBSET is not perfect, but it’s close, and clearly influenced a lot of my taste in comics (and comics greats). The book opens with two of the notorious early tales where Batman uses a gun – the Mad Monk two-parter by Gardner Fox and Bob Kane, and the Hugo Strange Monster Men story from Batman #1. Matt Wagner would later modernize both of them. Both of these are wonderfully moody stories that hold up today. After some decent ‘40s and ‘50s issues comes “The First Batman” and “Robin Dies at Dawn,” both by Bill Finger and Shelly Moldoff. Those two stories would be major touchstones for Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel’s Batman: RIP storyline. Even at eight, I thought revealing someone had hired Joe Chill was going a bit too far with Batman’s origin, but Moldoff’s design for Thomas Wayne’s costume is inspired and justifies the story. “Robin Dies at Dawn” is the volume’s sole representative of the weird sci-fi era Batman stories, and it’s fantastic, completely tense and psychologically terrifying. “Ghost of the Killer Skies” by Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano is probably responsible for my love of Enemy Ace. The story features Batman going up against a descendant of von Hammer. The weird thing about the story is that actually came out in the middle of the original run of Enemy Ace stories, but O’Neil completely makes it feel like a tribute to something from years ago. There’s an odd little running sub-theme of aeronautics in GBSET, as one of the forties stories included centered on Batman building a new Batplane and it also includes the gorgeous “Death Haunts the Skies” by Archie Goodwin and Alex Toth. “The Batman Nobody Knows” by Frank Robbins and Giordano has sort-of been adapted twice, once as part of Batman: the Animated Series and later as Batman: Gotham Knight. I say sort-of, because they take the idea of the story, which is three kids on a camping trip talking about the “real” Batman, while having their own spins on the stories the kids tell.
Of all the stories in GBSET, “The Deadshot Ricochet” probably had the most profound effect on my tastes. Taken from Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’s legendary (but brief) Detective Comics run, the issue is part of an attempt to translate the Marvel style to DC and probably imprinted itself on me as the best sort of superhero comics. The comic contains a one-in-done main plot, but has subplots involving supporting characters feed from issue to issue (the two issues after “Ricochet” are included in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, which I got within the next year). Batman’s love interest here, Silver St. Cloud, makes more of an impression than any of the other non-Catwoman paramours in the volume by figuring out his secret identity, making her quite different from the Julie Madisons and Vicki Vales.The issue is also heavy on nostalgia for the comics of yesteryear, as the climactic fight is a tribute to the work of Dick Sprang and the villain is one forgotten and unseen for nearly 25 years at the time of the story’s publication. I’m also sure reading the comic at age eight is at least part of why, to this day, Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton is one of my favorite characters. A lot of that has to do with subsequent work on the character by John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Christos Gage, Gail Simone, and many others, but the Englehart/Rogers revamp of Deadshot makes an immediate impression, which is why the character didn’t disappear the way he originally did after Batman #59. Lawton’s desire for revenge is utterly palpable, and that design! It’s completely ridiculous and comic book-y, but you can’t stop looking at it and admiring it!
“Batmite’s New York Adventure” by Bob Rozakis, Michael Golden, Bob Smith, and Anthony Tollin is the oddest story included in the volume. It really shouldn’t be in there, but it probably influenced my love of metafictional comics. “A Caper a Day Keeps the Batman Away” is a trifling comic by Len Wein, Walter Simonson, Giordano, and Petra Scotese, but it’s an utterly gorgeous one, and a comic I think I think about nearly every day. That’s no exaggeration, as in it, Wein teaches the audience the roots names of the days of the week through Calender Man’s week-long crime spree!
The volume closes out with two of Alan Brennert’s then-handful of comics (now closer to two handfuls), “To Kill a Legend” with Giordano and Adrienne Roy and “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne” with Joe Staton, George Freeman, and Lovern Kindzierski. These comics served as my introduction to DC’s multiverse. In the first story, the Phantom Stranger presents the Batman of Earth-1 with the chance to prevent the death of the Waynes on an alternate Earth (possibly Earth Prime). As with most of Brennert’s stories, it does a great job of distilling characters with long life-spans down into just a few pages, as while Batman obsesses over small differences making stopping Joe Chill not as easy he thought it would be, while Robin questions the rightness of depriving a world seemingly without superheroes of its Batman. “Autobiography” is the “last” story of the Earth-2 Batman, as he teams up with Catwoman to find out why everyone he loves has vanished. The answer touches on the fear of abandonment that’s driven the character since the day he lost his parents and ends with him finally entering into a relationship with Catwoman. These are great stories to end the book on, as “Legend” has obvious callbacks to other stories included in the volume while “Autobiography” provides a happy ending. In a way, this is all the Batman you’d ever need and I got it from my parents at eight years old.
Tim Durkee: I have received many comic books as
Christmas gifts over the years. The ones I remember specifically were packed
with other toys. Kenner released
the Super Powers line of toys. They were the DC heroes and villains. I still
feel the figures themselves were some of the better ones produced then and even
now. Each figure came with its own mini-comic. That year Santa brought me
Superman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern. There was nothing about the stories
in the books that was memorable. Just the fact they came with some really cool
toys is why I will always remember those as the Christmas Comics I will always
Mike Sterling: This was a hard question to answer,
forcing me to go way back to my long-ago pre-comics retail days. For the
last, oh, nearly thirty years or so as I’ve worked in, and now own, a comic
shop, pretty much any comic book I wanted I generally bought for myself. And
even farther back than that, as someone who regularly visited the local comic
shop, I was getting my mitts on just about any comic I was interested in. And,
as I’m sure you know, it’s really hard to buy comics for someone as a gift
unless 1) you have access to that person’s want list, or 2) the giftee’s told
you the specific comic desired.
Prior to that, sometime in the late 1970s, I was already slowly amassing a bit of a comic collection, but I wasn’t quite the Big Time Collector just yet. However, I was always on the lookout for anything comic book related, searching for any new sources to feed this burgeoning interest of mine. This was usually restricted to bicycle tours around all the local convenience stores, seeing what comics would appear on which racks, and seeking out new 7-11s and Stop-n-Go shops at greater and greater distances from my home. Plus, when I would go with my parents on shopping trips, I would zero in on any book or magazine racks that I could find.
It was on one such trip to a department store, one that I’d already known from
previous visits did not carry reading material of any kind, that I
discovered quite the surprise. I believe it was around Christmastime, as what I found was part of a display of
gift ideas. Among the other knickknacks and boring items intended for adults,
was a copy of Superman: From the ‘30s to the '70s. I don’t think I’d ever seen such a book before. Maybe I’d come across the Origins
of Marvel Comics and Sons of Origins at the library, but my
particular funnybook leanings at the time were toward DC’s output, and a big
hardcover book of Superman stories, pulled from throughout the character’s long
five-decade history? Why, that was amazing. I remember pleading
with my mom to buy this book for me, despite the fact that the dust jacket was
torn and the book had obviously been kicked around a bit. The condition didn’t
matter as much as the content; here were a ton of Superman comics that
were all new to me, and I couldn’t leave behind such a unique find! This was
the only copy of this book that I’d ever found, and surely if we left it
behind, I would never see it again! Well, needless to say, my mom opted not
to spend her money on this beat-up book, which I’m sure bummed me out at the
time. However, Christmas wasn’t that far away, and sure enough, my desire
for that item was definitely passed along to Santa Claus, for beneath the tree
that 25th was a pristine copy of Superman:
From the '30s to the '70s.
It’s an odd book, with a smattering of color pages in otherwise mostly black and white interiors, often going from color to b&w in the middle of a story. I remember thinking that was a bit weird at the time, but I didn’t care. This was a large, permanent edition of classic Superman stories and I was glad to have it. Not that I wasn’t open to getting comics in any format, but being able to have comics in something other than the periodical magazine format was a real eye-opener. The very idea that comics didn’t have to be cheap disposable entertainment, that they could have a life beyond their particular month on the shelves, that they could have historical context…maybe that wasn’t an idea exclusive to the Superman: From the '30s to the '70s book, but it was that publication that solidified it for me.
Years later, I was visiting a bookstore in a local mall when I happened to spot a copy of the revised edition of the book, Superman: From the '30s to the '80s, sitting by itself on a small table in one of the aisles. I wondered then how many kids begged their parents to buy them that book. I hope someone did.
This week, Trouble With Comics Question Time asks “What is the
greatest comics gift you’ve ever received?” It seems appropriate to share
Alan David Doane’s response today, on Stan Lee’s 93rd birthday. Happy
birthday, Stan, and thanks for your part in creating and maintaining the
Marvel Universe for so many years.
I’m pretty sure I was 11 years old and it was 1977 the year my mom gave me Origins of Marvel Comics for Christmas. I had seen it in stores and it had become my Holy Grail, but at $5.95 it cost about twenty times what a single comic book cost, and even though my mom was generous with my comics allowance, “generous” in those days was defined as maybe three bucks a week, which was enough to buy a dozen or so comics, which I did, week in and week out.
Marvel, DC, Charlton, Archie, and Harvey were the main comics publishers of my childhood. The first time I saw Origins of Marvel Comics in a bookstore (my family was full of readers and had hundreds if not thousands of books in bookcases long before I showed up on the scene), I had already been reading comics for half my life, having been given a stack as consolation during recovery from having my tonsils removed at the age of six. One of my earliest memories, maybe the second earliest thing I remember, actually, is being told to count backward from 100 as they put the anesthetic mask over my mouth and nose, and thinking to myself “I won’t breathe, I’ll fool them.” I didn’t want to lose consciousness. I remember getting as far as 97 in my count.
When I woke up, my mom had given me some comics to read while I recovered in my hospital bed. I don’t remember what most of them were, but I remember one of them was Amazing Spider-Man, during the Ross Andru era, and just like that, Spider-Man became my first favourite superhero.
I was a devoted follower of both Marvel and DC’s oversized Treasury Edition comics, and was able to read some of the reprints of old stories in those pages, and was particularly fascinated by the complexity and, forgive me, seeming reality of the Marvel Universe. I wanted to know it all. And nothing promised to deliver on that curiosity more than the big, fat book of reprints that was Origins of Marvel Comics.
Sure, having Stan Lee’s name alone on the cover was a bunch of bullshit at best and a criminally unfair exclusion of Kirby, Ditko and others at worst. Sure, the introductions Lee wrote to each chapter were self-serving and only vague representations of genuine comics history, but at 11 I didn’t know that. I didn’t idolize Lee like some did (and still do), because he was just Stan Lee Presents in the credits by the time I started reading comics, not Stan Lee Writer or Stan Lee Scripter. I think I have been a process junkie as long as I have been reading comics, so the people I thought were responsible for the comics were the credited writers and artists. I probably assumed Stan Lee Presents meant he was the boss, which at that point was still true, but not for much longer.
But before I say anything more about the book, I should tell you how it came into my possession. As most parents probably are in this regard, my mom was coy about whether I would likely receive Origins of Marvel Comics for Christmas. So when I awoke that morning, before anyone else in the house, and approached the fully-lit tree and saw that shape all wrapped up in festive holiday wrapping, well, I was probably the happiest I had ever been up to that point in my life. My memory could be faulty here, but I swear to you I think I opened it and read it by the light of the tree while everyone else in the house slept. And I was absolutely enthralled by having in my hands one single, thick volume with the answers to so many questions about the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and so many more.
It’s impossible for you to understand if you came of age in the graphic novel era, but Origins of Marvel Comics was a real breakthrough in how comics were presented (well, re-presented) in collected form. There were a handful of such experiments in the 1970s – DC had a comparable one, but it did not launch a book series like Origins did, being followed as it was by Son of Origins and Bring on the Bad Guys and The Superhero Women and Marvel’s Greatest Superhero Battles, as well as slimmer volumes featuring the FF, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man and others. Before Marvel partnered with Fireside Books to issue forth these wondrous books (they were trade paperbacks in the publishing industry parlance of the day, but the “TPB” as it is thought of within comics did not exist in any way), the only way to read those earliest adventures was either buy the expensive original comics (Amazing Fantasy #15 back then was economically out of reach to me, costing scores of dollars on the back issue market, maybe even a hundred in mint condition), or find them in reprints in the treasuries or the reprint titles Marvel jammed the stands with to knock their competition off the racks. But it was very hit and miss trying to track down reprints of first issues and first appearances, and Origins of Marvel Comics really addressed that problem.
Plus, with a beautiful cover by John Romita (no other identifier needed, he was the only one we had heard of at the time, the only one in the world, for all we knew or cared) and beautiful, thick white matte paper stock, man, the book was just lovely to look at, an art object in my 11-year-old eyes, one that likely plays a role in the subsequent decades of appreciation I have had for a nicely produced book.
Over the course of my life, my mom gave me many wonderful gifts, some of them far more expensive and important than Origins of Marvel Comics – like my first car, which got me to college, where I learned how to be a broadcaster, which allowed me to make a living for 27 years and raise a family and, of course, buy comics and even write about them from time to time.
But she gave me no greater gift, none that lives in my memory or affected my destiny like Origins of Marvel Comics did. That moment under the tree, reading by the sparkling Christmas lights while my family slept and I truly gained entry into another world, that moment is forever fixed in my mind and is as real to me now as if it happened yesterday, even though it was four decades ago. The memory of seeing Kirby’s first FF story, and Ditko’s first Spider-Man, and all the rest, and yes, even digging the rhythm and groove of Stan the Man’s puffed-up patter, all that fills my heart with light and joy and gratitude that is so profound, and so powerful, that the decades that have passed mean nothing at all.
Thanks, mom. For all you gave me, but especially for that. I lost her to Alzheimer’s and brain cancer less than twenty years after she gave me that book for Christmas, but when I think back to that morning, I have her again, her generosity and kindness, and I have the sense of wonder that she, and Stan and Steve and Jack and the rest, all presented me with that morning in December, 1977. I am still there, under that tree. I am still in that moment, forever.
– Alan David Doane
This week’s question: What’s your favorite holiday-themed comic other than the infamous Alan Brennert Supergirl story?
Tim Durkee: The first book that came to my mind when the question was asked was Batman: The Long Halloween. Originally published as a 13-part mini-series by DC in 1996, the tale brings Batman and Harvey Dent together along Jim Gordon to track down a killer who strikes on holidays. If you have seen the Dark Knight film, you may find some influence the story had on the movie. It features the art of Tim Sale and was written by Jeph Loeb. Set in Batman’s early days following Batman: Year One. I find it to be a unique way of introducing the many enemies of Batman in one story while still keeping the emphasis on who is the mysterious villain committing the holiday crimes. Some may find it boring, as it is an origin tale as well. I won’t spoil it, maybe I already did letting you know some elements are in the Dark Knight movie.
Logan Polk: My favorite holiday themed tale in all of comics is The Long Halloween. For me Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s year long Batman series, in which each issue was somewhat themed around a holiday, encapsulated everything I love about the Dark Knight. It features one of the greatest assemblages of his rogues gallery, flawlessly folds the organized crime aspect into the costumed craziness and centers itself around a mystery, allowing for the detective aspect to come fully into play. While Loeb’s story ultimately doesn’t amount to more than a series of homages to some of the greatest crime noir stories previous, Sale’s art creates such a brilliant look and mood for the world these characters are operating in that it hardly needs to be more than that. I was fully wrapped up in figuring out who the Holiday Killer would be, and even after several re-readings over the years, I still find it to be a page turner.
Joe Gualtieri: Growing up, a key piece of comics education for me was finding random comics that I had never heard of before. Obviously, the infamous three-pack was the major component of such an education, but sometimes Building 19 would get long boxes or maybe a drug store would have a bunch of comics with gigantic “$3/$1.00!” stickers taking up a quarter of the cover. The most important comic for me I got that way was Ambush Bug #2 by Keith Giffen, Robert Loren Fleming, Bob Oksner, and Anthony Tollin. That bizarre little morsel prompted me to track down the rest of the mini-series, and I was thrilled to find that not only was there a sequel series, there was also Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer.
As with the rest of the series, the Stocking Stuffer is loaded with jokes I didn’t get in early adolescence, but there are so many, I amply enjoyed it even at the time. Now? My favorite part is probably the two-page “How to Write Comic Books” sequence, which is a parody of Steve Ditko’s didactic comics. That is completely bizarre thing to stick in a Christmas themed issue, but it’s par for the course for Ambush Bug. Another highlight is a caricature of Julie Schwartz chasing around a Manga-ized Ambush Bug. AB is standing in for Keith and Fleming here, complaining to Schwartz that, “…we can’t possibly be funny for 40 pages!” and Schwartz responds “You quitter! My jokes aren’t funny and I’ve been around for 40 years!” Young me found the situation and art hilarious, now I can appreciate the portrayal of Schwartz, and frankly, I totally identify with telling bad jokes just for the sake of telling jokes to get through work.
I’m probably not doing a great job of selling the Stocking Stuffer, but it’s a comic light on plot (there is one, barely, about AB’s “dead” sidekick Cheeks the Toy Wonder coming back) and is practically a stream of consciousness-style series of jokes, parodies, and gags from Giffen, Fleming, and company. It also has Jonni DC, Continuity Cop making a rare appearance and I think we can all agree that’s the greatest gift of all.
Scott Cederlund: If we talked about favorite all time runs of comics, the Marv Wolfman/George Perez New Teen Titans would be highly placed in my list. But if we talk about favorite Teen Titans issue, my introduction to the original Teen Titans in Teen Titans #13 (1967) by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy actually has to be up there. And it’s Haney and Cardy riffing on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that makes it so much fun as the Teen Titans fight against a Scrooge-like junkman.
I don’t know if I’ve ever actually owned an actual copy of this specific issue. As one of my earliest comics, I had a copy of Christmas With the Super-Heroes, one of DC’s early treasury editions. The only things I knew of any of these characters was that Robin was Batman’s sidekick and that I had Mego figures of Kid Flash, Aqualad and Wonder Girl. They were a bit like the Justice League but only kids. But they were incredibly awesome as they helped a wheelchair-bound kid and his father out of a tough situation during the Christmas season.
For a kid who was already at the age of 4 indoctrinated by Marvel and the artistic children of Jack Kirby (actual Kirby appreciation would come probably over a decade later), Cardy’s artwork is what really stood out from that Treasury edition. It was filled with Irv Novick and Dick Giordano (who I probably assumed at the time were the DC house style), Bob Oskner and Wally Wood, Win Mortimer and others, Cardy’s images in this issue still astound me.
There are ways that he drew superheroes, these odd angles that he used to frame the action, that look completely different than anything else I had seen before or for a long time afterwards. And his cartooning of Ebenezer Scrounge (their Scrooge,) Jacob Farley and Scrounge’s accomplices really gives this story a life other than being merely a superhero comic. The Teen Titans almost seem like an intrusion into this wonderfully drawn homage to Dickens.
Then there’s Haney with his silly attempts to be writing to the kids of the time, which is actually a bit more subdued in this issue than in his other Teen Titan comics. Wonder Girl is still “Wonder Chick” but like Cardy, Haney seems to be having more fun with the Dickens-like characters. Most of the comic is Scrounge being haunted by his past sins in classic A Christmas Carol style.
As an introduction to the Teen Titans, Haney and Cardy’s comics had a great love for these junior Justice Leaguers as their own characters. There’s nothing in this story that even suggests that these are just the sidekicks or the junior varsity other than a one-pager in the actual comic that shows them reading Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Batman comics (What? No love for Carmine Infantino’s Flash from Kid Flash?) Haney and Cardy treat them as heroes who are kids, which was a great thing to stumble upon in a Treasury comic that featured Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel. Even if Robin had been around since the 1940s by this point, here he wasn’t a junior partner but in important part of the team.
And honestly, this was probably my introduction to A Christmas Carol. Flipping through the comic now and still incredibly enjoying the Cardy artwork, Haney and Cardy take enough liberties with the story that I don’t think Dicken’s would recognize much of his work in this comic other than on the most surface level. But this would become as much of my A Christmas Carol experience as Dicken’s writing or any of the movies but most specifically the 1951 Alistair Sim version of the story. Nick Cardy’s parka-wearing Wonder Woman defines Christmas to me even now as much as any of the ghosts of Christmas past do.
Mike Sterling: I’d love to pick, say, an Arbor Day comic as my choice for my favorite holiday funnybook (and presumably this example from the Flaming Carrot Annual would be a good'un), but my holiday preferences are strictly plebeian. Christmas and Halloween are my events of choice, and as they tend to be the events of pretty much everyone’s choice, there is no shortage of comics to choose from.
Despite the current season, I’m going with a Halloween-themed story which
actually gave me a moment of difficulty in trying to track it down. I believed
it to be one of the classic Donald Duck stories cartooned by the Good Duck
Artist himself, Carl Barks, back during the 1950s prime of his
contributions to the Disney comics oeuvre. As it turns out, however, it’s a
modern classic by the man who many feel is the successor to Barks, Don
”Fit to be Pied,“ as it’s been dubbed (the comic itself is sans title) first appeared in 1987, early on in Rosa’s duck comics career, and hopefully I may be forgiven my confusion regarding its authorship as it is very much in the style of Barks’s 10-pagers. Donald, in competition with his eternal adversary Neighbor Jones, strives to win the local jack o'lantern contest, and and he and Jones engage in a chaotic war of one-upsmanship, involving disguises, thievery and outright vandalism. It's an exercise in escalating efforts and Jones and Donald attempt to outdo each other, as poor Huey, Dewey and Louie look on nearly helpless bystanders, appalled at the behavior of these supposed adults.
Ultimately (spoiler warning!), Donald achieves his initial goal in besting Neighbor Jones, but of course it is at great personal cost to himself, in the tradition of most of Donald’s Pyrrhic victories. Rosa's depiction of Donald’s vacillation between joyous triumph and angered defeat never fail to entertain, and easily match Barks’s own illustration of the ups-and-downs of comicdom’s most emotionally unstable fowl.
The story is reasonably easy to find – the original comic in which it appeared (Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #526) is not so old and uncommon as to be prohibitively expensive, and the story has been reprinted recently in the Don Rosa Library Volume 1 from Fantagraphics. It remains a fine example of latter-day Disney comics, as does all of Rosa’s work.
This week, TWC contributors were asked to name their favorite works by creators new to comics in the 2010s.
Mike Sterling: I’m
sure my fellow Troublemakers here will have more avant-garde or highbrow choices, but I gotta
be me and go with comics writer Charles Soule,
and his first issue of the most recent She-Hulk series.
“Say whaaaa” you may be exclaiming to yourself, but I have to tell you, that first issue of She-Hulk was a hoot, a light-hearted adventure intertwined with the legal side of She-Hulk's daily life, as written by a fella who’s also a lawyer.
I was already sorta favorably inclined toward Mr. Soule’s work, in that he took over the previous writer on the New 52 revival of Swamp Thing, but that may have been less a case of enjoying his skills as a writer (which were just fine on this book, don’t get me wrong) and more about his finally getting the title away from some of its more interminable shorelines. But on She-Hulk, I really noticed how deftly he handled the travails of She-Hulk’s professional side in the legal world. In particular, the sequence in which She-Hulk complains to the partners about not getting a yearly bonus, and finding out it's because she didn’t refer over any of her high-profile superhero pals…some people may think realism in comics is blood ‘n’ guts 'n' sexy-times, but Soule gave us our hero getting screwed over at work, and that’s about as real as it gets. The way this whole situation was laid out was a story conflict I’ve not seen in a comic before, and Soule's legal knowledge gave it some solid authenticity.
Soule’s legal background would feed stories through the rest of this unfortunately short-lived series. A fill-in artist that didn’t quite match the established tone replaced regular Javier Pulido for a couple of issues, driving readers away (at least at my shop), and I don’t know if that brought about the early cancellation or if it was just Marvel’s almost Aspen Comics-esque fear of double-digit numbering on their titles, but canned the book was, alas. But Soule’s entertaining scripting still showed through, and so taken was I with his work that, having already decided that I was probably done with Daredevil once Mark Waid was off that comic, the announcement that Soule would be on the relaunch made me reconsider. "Soule…writing another lawyer superhero? GUESS I’M IN.“
So, yes, She-Hulk #1 (2014), written by that new talent Charles Soule, is my pick. I even read it twice on the day I took it home…I’m too old to waste my precious remaining minutes of life rereading something I’ve already read, but I made an exception for this. Surely that must tell you something.
Logan Polk: Nimona, Noelle Stevenson’s Eisner-winning fantasy/sci-fi tale, is maybe my favorite comic discovery in the last few years. It blends two genres that I have an unhealthy fascination with, adding in the twist of telling it from the bad guy’s point of view. It’s not an uncommon trope in today’s comics, but to approach it with this kind of wit and charm is certainly rare. It never compromises character for the sake of edginess, and it challenges conventional thinking in a way that never feels elitist or condescending, yet still manages to maintain its whimsy. I’ll admit to being completely apprehensive reading the first few chapters, but by the books midway point I could not put it down, and I closed it and hour or so later with a bittersweet smile on my face.
Jason Marcy: I can think of right of the top of my head three cartoonists who have really broken out. Their bread and butter don’t come from the mainstream "Big Two” (though all three have dabbled in it…) but from the Independent Comic/Major Book publishing scene.
Lucy Knisley: One of the best autobiographical comics creators working in the field today, Knisley has managed to carve out quite a fanbase for her work. Her beautifully illustrated and written stories from her life have attracted the attention of many quality publishers, Fantagraphics and First Second to name two. Her food memoir Relish (a New York Times bestseller) has been translated into a number of different languages and been picked up by international publishers. Her wonderful travelogue comics through Fantagraphics have equally drawn great praise and sold exceptionally well. Any show she attends she usually leaves with table emptied of her numerous books (some self published and just as loved and as good as her major releases…) well before a show ends, and her work queue at shows for commission work is mind blowing. Her upcoming book, “Something New” about her recent marriage is eagerly awaited by fans.
Kate Beaton: Like Lucy Knisley I can say “I knew her when”. Beaton was one of the many cartoonists I befriended on LiveJournal in what had to be the up and coming cartoonist days of the site as many of the people I "met" there have gone on to bigger things with their work. I can remember telling Kate that those funny History comics she thought there was only a limited audience for, would end up being HUGE. Well man, I never could have dreamed just how huge! She has had two New York Times bestsellers with her Hark! A Vagrant! collections, and the initial collection continues to sell insanely well. Lines for her autograph have sometimes had TWO hour waits. She has also ventured into the children’s book field, had comics published in various magazines, been interviewed by major news outlets on her books… not bad for a Nova Scotia born gal!!
Raina Telgemeier: Probably THE most successful cartoonist of her Generation. I mean her work is literally EVERYWHERE. Her autobiographical Smile and Sisters books have done INCREDIBLE numbers. Those books along with the work she has done for Scholastic’s The Babysitter’s Club series and her book Drama have been mainstays on the New York Times graphic novel bestseller lists for AGES. I have been to the households of my wife’s friends and I will find Telgemeier’s books being read by their daughters. When my local comic shop in Hamilton allocated a massive two book pile display at the front of the store for Sisters it really hit me. Again, walk into a freaking Wal-Mart, and Raina is THERE. HUGE.
Scott Cederlund: This was a harder list than I thought it was going to be. When I started this, there were a number of names I thought of but then after a slight bit of research, I figured out their first major works were in 2008 or 2009. So that left off names like Michael DeForge, Jillian Tamaki or Lucy Knisley that I wanted to be on this list (see what I did there?).
And there are a lot of great, currently developing names that I think in another 4 years will end up on the Best New Talent of the Decade list in 2020 who have their best work coming ahead of them.
James Harren– I remember first seeing Harren’s artwork on a Conan comic and thinking “this guy can draw the best blood splatter.” What a great introduction to an artist! Whether it’s Conan, B.P.R.D., or his own creator-owned Rumble, Harren’s great artwork has real weight and texture to it that give his stories a real world to live and breathe in.
Tula Lotay– Her art in Supreme: Blue Rose perfectly matched the illusory feel to Warren Ellis’s script. Tackling an old Rob Liefeld comics (a recent trend at Image), Lotay really made it her own as she and Ellis created a comic that was less an homage to an old comic and a modern day exploration of the concept of the superhero, something Ellis and his creative ancestors have made their bread and butter off of. The warm, lush painting was so antithetical to everything that Supreme was before that it made the characters and story her own.
Tyler Crook– Crook’s Petrograd (2011) was a good debut for an artist who has only continued to grow and develop since then. Fast forward to 2015, his and Cullen Bunn’s Harrow County has been one of the best and spookiest comics of the year as Crook has added color to his arsenal of tricks. His almost innocent-looking artwork is taken over by the sinister shadows of the woods of this story.
Charles Forsman– Between Celebrated Summer and The End of the Fucking World, Forsman has redefined teenage rebellion in comics in the past few years. TWOTFW, with Forsman’s Charles Shulz-like character designs, created this disconcerting conflict between its violent actions and the familiar child-like appearance of its characters.
Stephanie Hans– I wish Hans was a bigger name by now than she is. On Journey Into Mystery (as cover artist) and in Angela (as artist on only half of the comic,) she’s Marvel’s best kept secret and one of the few break-out painters of the past few years. The fantasy and romance elements that she brings to superhero comics help define the tone of the comics that she’s working on even if she’s not the primary artist on a book.
Scott Snyder– It’s hard to think that American Vampire only debuted in 2010 as Snyder is now a grizzled veteran of the New 52 DC. And with it just announced that Snyder will be leading a DC writer training program, Snyder has become the DC veteran writer, leading the direction of the DCU, that Geoff Johns was 10 years ago. [Note: Snyder’s comics writing debut was a Marvel one-shot from 2009]
Jordie Bellaire– Bellaire is one of the handful of recent colorists who have redefined what you can really do with colors as a storytelling element. For far too long, the majority of colorists were dazzled by what they could do with their computers, learning their way around Photoshop without ever thinking about what they were doing to the story. Bellaire (and Elizabeth Breitweiser to name another) has led the way for a new generation of colorist to make storytelling choices in their work that are equally as important as the more lauded writing and art.
Russell Dauterman– Maybe the best artist working at Marvel today. It’s easy to call his work on Thor “Frank Quitely-like” but Dauterman, along with colorist Matt Wilson (another colorist who is a great storyteller-with-hues) has a very different sense of storytelling than Quitely. Dauterman’s artwork brings the eye of Geoff Darrow’s detail to a Jack Kirby world.
Joe Gualtieri: I’m going to kind of sort of cheat here. I had some trouble finding creators who fit the criteria but I did come up with a handful. Most notably, I was tempted to write about the work of Erica Henderson, whose wonderful style, full of diverse body types is something I never would have expected to see at Marvel a few years ago. Babs Tarr, whose work on Batgirl hit like an atomic bomb, was another possible topic.
Instead I’m going to talk about Chuck Palahniuk, because people are confused and seem to think one of the rules of Fight Club is to not buy Fight Club 2. That’s a sequel to one of the best novels of the last 20 years, adapted into one of the greatest films of all time, and the comic debuted to less than 60,000 sales on its first issue (at least it’s maintained a healthy share of those sales). Considering that Marvel’s Star Wars relaunch sold more than a million copies, that number is baffling. No offense to Jason Aaron and John Cassaday, but they are hired guns producing something that could be swept away in a moment, just like the first Marvel Star Wars comic or twenty-plus years of Dark Horse comics. Fight Club is Palahniuk’s; this is a high-profile property that the original creator chose to try in a new medium, one he had never worked in before. The resulting work is impressive, and the only comics I can really compare it to are two of the best, Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo and The Invisibles. The former is actually the closest point of comparison, but Palahniuk’s gives the version of Project Mayhem in Fight Club 2 a sense of scale absent from the original work, even when the Narrator traveled across the country. It’s now a global conspiracy on par with something from The Invisibles. Additionally, as with Morrison’s work, Fight Club 2 has the feeling of a high-wire act that could fall apart in the end, particularly its fourth-wall breaking elements, which feel divorced from the rest of the comic at the midpoint of the series. Maybe everyone is just waiting for the trade on this one, but sales are so low I think some people don’t want to pick up what they’re assuming is a crash grab. It’s not; Fight Club 2 so far is a very good comic with a chance to be great if its obviously talented writer can successfully draw the strands of the work together (and his novels suggest he can).
Back once again to look at the early days of the Marvel Universe, but how about we try to move things along for a change? First up is Tales to Astonish #42, which introduces one-off villain, Jason Cragg, a radio announcer turned into a hypnotic villain by a freak electrical accident. Cragg, who started dressing as a 19th Century fop once he got his power, convinces any New Yorker in earshot that Ant-Man is their enemy and must be driven from the city. The only one immune to Cragg’s voice is, naturally, Ant-Man, whose helmet frequency somehow filters out the hypnotic quality, but when the posse starts using magnets to find Ant-Man in the grass, he loses the helmet and falls under Cragg’s sway.
Cragg tells Ant-Man to walk off the pier and make no attempt to swim, which would mean death if not for the mandibles of his ant friends saving him. Larry Lieber, though not as celebrated as brother Stan Lee, nonetheless occasionally writes some things Stan wouldn’t, such as Ant-Man threatening Cragg with a gun pointed at him unless he publicly reverses his stance on Ant-Man being a menace. He then tells Cragg the gun is just a prop, but he’s already covered Cragg’s microphone with microbes to give him laryngitis, which means he can’t cloud anyone’s minds, and somehow, when he regains his voice, it’s a slim chance it will ever have the same hypnotic power. The story is a lot like one Lee might come up with for this book or Tales of Suspense before they became superhero books, a story of an average man given special abilities by a twist of fate, and losing them quickly due to greed or callousness. It just happens to have Ant-Man providing the reversal. Mildly enjoyable as a little bit of a change of pace, and because Don Heck does a nice job drawing the blustery Cragg. Better still is the backup story by Lee/Ditko about a robot passing himself off via a rubber mask as a man.
Tales of Suspense #40 has a little bit different creative mix, with R. Berns scripting and Kirby’s pencils inked by Heck. Before the story really gets underway, the creators take care of some business, giving Iron Man gold armor because the gray one frightened kids. Then our hero enters the closed-off town of Granville, where the townspeople worship a Neanderthal named Gargantus, who can hypnotize people with his reflective eyes. It’s not much trouble for Iron Man to defeat Gargantus, who is actually a robot created by a would-be invading alien force who look a lot like the Muppet, Sam the Eagle. They’re scared off and we’re left with a limp second outing for Iron Man, gold armor notwithstanding. It feels a lot like Incredible Hulk #2, where the creative team isn’t the same as on the first issue and the story isn’t nearly as interesting. Aside from learning he can’t be seen bare chested because of the chest plate keeping him alive, we know almost nothing about Tony Stark.
Strange Tales #107 presents the more reckless, thrill-seeking side of Human Torch, as he once again feels a little left out of his adult teammates’ plans and decides to defeat Sub-Mariner once and for all, and all on his own. The battle doesn’t start off very promising, though I guess it’s creative that Sub-Mariner can blow up like a pufferfish. There’s some more dull fighting and pursuing, until Torch scares Namor off with his Nova flame. He goes home, victorious but dissatisfied because no one saw it. They’re the lucky ones. A dull issue, almost as if the creators didn’t want to take anything away from the next inevitable Sub-Mariner appearance in Fantastic Four.
We’ll get to the F.F. in a minute, but first, Journey into Mystery #91, which is unmemorable except as yet another confused, unnecessary Loki story. This time, Loki, confined to Asgard, empowers a common stage hypnotist named Sandu, giving him the power to cloud men’s minds, spirit away bank money, and reverse the course of missiles, mainly for Loki’s amusement. He’s even able to bind Thor in unbreakable chains. The problem is that Sandu thinks he’s suddenly godlike, though it’s more a problem for the reader than the world, as he’s not bright enough to come up with anything better than Loki’s random pranks.
Thor calls upon Odin for help with his bonds, and Odin sends the Valkyrie, his ethereal handmaidens, to help Thor escape. Both the Valkyrie and Odin are drawn by Joe Sinnott quite differently than Jack Kirby would come up with. Sinnott’s work here shows him to have a precise but dull line. Maybe he’s a good choice, as Thor spends a lot of time tied up and Sandu mostly stands or floats around, but somehow Kirby would have done something with even this weak material. The fact Thor has to call upon his Dad ex Machina doesn’t help the story, nor does Sandu defeating himself by blowing a gasket over the fact he can’t lift Thor’s hammer, becoming so upset he loses his powers. Thor does nothing.
And finally, Fantastic Four #13, which shows that Jack Kirby can come up with plenty of dumb ideas, but if you give him a full issue, it will probably work out all right. We get Mr. Fantastic telling the team that not only does he suspect a meteor holds limitless energy, which he proves to himself by looking at it with goggles, but he also suspects the Communists have come to the same conclusion and are after this energy themselves. And he’s not wrong, exactly. It’s unclear what the meteor had to do with anything, but we do know cosmic rays in space gave the F.F. their powers, so maybe some of that radiation (or, why not, a limitless supply of it), would be embedded in a meteor.
Never mind all that, though, because Communist agent Ivan Kragoff, who likes to say his name to himself a lot, is going into space with his trained apes, because he has old college friend and no girlfriend with a kid brother to go along with him, and he’s going to get that same cosmic radiation that created the F.F. to imbue him and his apes with powers. He even makes his rocket have a nosecone of transparent plastic, all the better to get more hot rads into it.
It works, too, and the apes each have powers like magnetism, super strength, and…I forget the other one–limitless feces to throw or something. The F.F. are actually up in space as well in their rocket, testing a new suit for Human Torch that emits a chemical vapor to allow him to flame on without atmosphere to burn, and they spot Kragoff and his rocket. Reed deduces it’s Kragoff, who intends to beat the U.S. to the Moon, because you know how Communist agents behind the Iron Curtain were always blabbing in U.S. media about their plans in the ‘60s. For the first time, someone in the F.F. talks about “the mysterious blue area” of the Moon, long before Stan and Jack create The Inhumans, and the F.F. go ahead and land on the Moon, making NASA look silly again.
They discover there’s a long-dead civilization on the Moon, though not so dead that there isn’t an atmosphere created by that civilization, allowing Johnny to fly around and discover what looks like an ultramodern home, far different from the ruins of the rest of the city. Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl go after him, and Thing is soon attacked by Kragoff’s super apes, and that one whose power I forgot about? He can shape shift. The Red Ghost–for that’s what Kragoff calls himself now–reveals his power is becoming intangible, though he can will parts of his body to be solid enough, like if he wants to hold a weapon. But before Red Ghost and Thing can mix it up, they and the apes are stopped by The Watcher, the pale, toga-clad giant guardian of the Moon, who reveals he comes from a giant computer planet and that his people are all observers of other races. He warns them that the conflict between their nations may bring about war, but for now, he only wants the two of them to fight. Then he disappears.
Naturally, The Thing relays this to the rest of the F.F. as “He wants us to fight it out with that Commie for control of the Moon,” which is at least one lie. Mr. Fantastic would rather they all work together, but Thing knows Red Ghost won’t buy that, and sure enough, Red Ghost tries a sneak attack, taking Mr. Fantastic out of action with a freezing chemical while he takes Invisible Girl hostage. Torch goes up against the fast, shape-shifting ape, who turns into Torch’s dreaded enemy, asbestos (if only they could hypnotize the ape into believing he’s the popcorn ceiling of an apartment!), while Thing fights the super-strng gorilla and the orangutan magnetizes Invisible Girl to his back, Kirby once again making the common mistake of thinking people are made of ferrous metal.
Red Ghost knows a pneumatic-powered car when he sees one, so he takes off in the one left by the alien race, down into an underground cavern. Torch and Thing free Mr. Fantastic, who says they need to outsmart Red Ghost, so he comes up with a metal tube Torch can fly inside of, with Thing holding onto the top with handlebars. It’s like Torch just carrying Thing on his back, but heavier, since there’s that metal tube. That’s why Mr. Fantastic is the leader.
Invisible Girl realizes the apes are enslaved, just like the Communist masses are enslaved by their evil leaders, and releases them. They’re so happy to find food that they’re not a threat. Torch burns his way through the cavern walls to find Red Ghost until invisible Girl warns him it’s a trap. But Red Ghost has his own concerns, searching The Watcher’s home to see what he can steal and use, but it’s too alien. The Watcher discovers him and shows his mastery of time and space, then tosses him out, where Mr. Fantastic is ready with a paralysis ray. The Watcher declares the contest over, and one wonders if he feels good about abandoning his people’s vow of non-interference for The Red Ghost, a villain Kirby can’t even come up with a costume for, unless “green trash bag and boots” is a costume.
Now, all along, but not noticeably, I’ve been writing the column with the thought that not every issue of every Marvel book has to be covered, nor does every story. Mainly I’ve avoided Rawhide Kid and the non-superhero backups in the anthology books, JiM, ToS and TtA. But as we go forward and we find that not every Ant-Man, Iron Man or Human Torch story is worth discussing, there will also be an increase in titles to where it will be impossible to review them all in a weekly column. So we’ll start to get a little choosier, focusing on the good books and notable stories.
Next week: that means we probably won’t spend much time with Iron Man vs. Dr. Strange (not that one) in Tales of Suspense #41, Ant-Man vs. The Mad Master of Time in Tales to Astonish #43 or Human Torch vs. The Painter of 1,000 Faces in Strange Tales #108, but Sub-Mariner returning in Fantastic Four #14? Sure, why not? Thor vs. Loki in Journey into Mystery #92? The guy won’t leave long enough or us to miss him, but yeah, okay. Amazing Spider-Man #2, featuring the debut of The Vulture? Of course. And the debut of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos? Wouldn’t miss it. See you then.
1. Mike Mignola’s work. Particularly Hellboy’s depiction of the Ogdru Jahad, but the Lovecraftian unnameable, unspeakable horrors permeate through much of his work, including:
2. The Doom That Came To Gotham. Still one of my favourite Elseworlds stories and a mash up of Batman and Lovecraft.
3. The disturbing fishman rape in Alan Moore’s Neonomicon.
4. Ben Templesmith. Just in general. When I think of Lovecraftian unnameable things, at least one image is a bunch of tentacles from Templesmith.
5. Atomic Robo battling HP Lovecraft after he was taken over by an interdimensional tentacle monster.
BONUS: Before Watchmen. It just should not be, not that it has any ties to Lovecraft.
The last couple of months the old comic shop has sort of dried up for
material for ol’ Jay here. So I turned to the burgeoning world of “Print
On Demand” to satisfy my needs. Since the Canadian dollar is at a
ridiculous low I concentrated mainly on Lulu, which now has a production
facility in Ontario. I will however also be doing reviews in future of
some Createspace material bought off of Amazon.ca. Here’s the first
batch for your perusal!
COMPLEATING CUL DE SAC, BY RICHARD THOMPSON, LULU.COM
A few years ago I can remember getting into a discussion about Print On Demand’s quality limitations with a prominent Independent comics shop Manager/revered Indy show organizer. Well, if any book shows that POD quality has come a long way, it’s Compleating Cul de Sac. Andrews McMeel released its lovely box set “The Complete Cul de Sac” a few years back. But it really wasn’t “complete.” The vast majority of Thompson’s Washington Post color weeklies prior to Cul de Sac never made the collection. This book rectifies those omissions beautifully. A project put together with ALL proceeds going to Parkinson’s Disease research, Compleating Cul de Sac reproduces those watercolor strips and more. Along with those early weeklies there are the test strips where the family name Otterloop is absent as well as a different name for Petey. The book is also filled out with wonderful sketchbook material, including how each character received their look and names. A pre-Parkinson’s interview with Thompson also is included and we get further insight into the making of this wonderful strip that lasted for only a short time. There are also pages that either didn’t make the deadline for the Parkinson’s fundraiser book Team Cul de Sac :Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson’s (all drawings that did made deadline were included in that wonderful book), or were created afterwards for auctions at conventions, funds that went to benefit the fight against that damned disease. Even more Thompson oddball college strips and one pagers for various publications fill out the book as well. If you’re a fan of Thompson’s strip, this is a must have. If you’re a lover of comic strips in general and their early genesis, this is gold for you too!
DONNELL JOURNAL VOL.1: AIRMAN by Donnell Hudson, Lulu.com
The Donnell Journal was one of the first autobio webstrips I encountered as part of the Livejournal community. It basically documents the life of Donnell Hudson, a recent graduate of the Air Force who ends up being deployed to Iraq in a support role (guarding detainees, registering civilians etc…). It is an interesting look at the average soldier’s often mundane duties interrupted by mortar attacks and drunken binges, along with surreal shopping trips to the local native bazaar where one can buy bootleg DVDs of Hollywood’s latest offerings. Hudson also looks at his growing substance abuse first with skepticism and then a little more critically as it progresses, suffering a few relapses along the way. We also get to see some of the lives of the people Hudson was deployed with, young men and women who could be your neighbors. This collection was published in 2009 though I only discovered its existence last month. A promised second volume has yet to appear and I wish that it would, remembering how the following strips dealt with another deployment and Hudson’s wild foray into the married life.
Artwise Hudson is fairly solid with a distinctive cartooning style that starts out sketchily but grows stronger with subsequent strips. Reproduction on the other hand is a slight problem, as if not a high enough image resolution was used. It doesn’t take away from one’s enjoyment of Hudson’s work, but it is a bit of a distraction. A very good collection all around despite the production glitches.
WHAT YOU DON’T GET by ANNE THALHEIMER, LULU.COM
What You Don’t Get is a story of survival. First off surviving being the oddball in one’s small school, and then surviving the once-unthinkable: a school mass shooting. Anne’s journey starts out simply enough, as the oddball artistic castaway in a “normal” school, Anne transfers to a special academy geared towards the arts. Finding acceptance there comes somewhat easier, and we see her romances, her relationships with school mates and teachers. Then Anne’s life is shattered when one of her close friends and a teacher end up being killed by a lone gunman. What follows is her starkly revealing coming to terms with what has happened, if one can really ever come to terms with such an event.
Anne’s art is minimalist in nature, sometimes reminiscent of John Porcellino yet still very much her own. The writing is somewhat chaotic, but then it reflects exactly her thoughts on this trauma that has occurred in her life, so hard to comprehend. As Anne deftly illustrates, there is no way to truly let something like this go, and her attempts to do so seem like failure to her but really mirror any sane person’s survival instincts no doubt after such a horrible event.
THE VERY BEST OF BOOTY, by ANNE THALHEIMER, LULU.COM
Before “What You Don’t Get”, there was Thalheimer’s autobio journal “Booty”. Semi daily/weekly in nature, Booty is the artist’s early attempts at doing autobiographical comics. Her somewhat hesitant initial scratchy-like artwork soon grows into a more confident seemingly simple style and her off the cuff almost stream of thought writing style puts you right there as she unfolds her tales of her daily life.
As any Best Of does, Booty delivers some hit or miss pieces, but nonetheless some riveting heartfelt work is always present. Her frequent mentions of being unable to focus on her major project (the above “What You Don’t Get”) is relatable to any artist trying to finish a sensitive project, and the interjections of every day life hassles should have any one nodding along in agreement at the frustrations expressed.
BARK TO WORK LEGISLATION: A POOCH CAFÉ COLLECTION by PAUL GILLIGAN, LULU.COM
Wait a second, you might be saying. Isn’t Pooch Café a Univeral Press Syndicate product? Indeed it is, and while Gilligan’s two previous Pooch Café releases were put out through Andrews McMeel, POD has seemingly become even a syndicated cartoonist’s means to get product out as Gilligan is not the only syndicated strip artist using the ever improving POD system. Bark to Work Legislation continues the hilarious adventures of dog Poncho’s battles with the many cats his owner’s new wife brings into the home, as well as the lunacy of hanging with his dog pals at Pooch Café.
Gilligan is an accomplished artist and storyteller in these strips. The fact that Poncho talks (and people understand him) and that all the dogs tend to walk in the upright position won’t even faze you. Always one of my personal favs, I was off course quite upset that Andrews McMeel had not continued to reprint these strips. Finding this book on Lulu was like a godsend. It is beautifully reproduced, right down to a Universal Press Syndicate symbol on the back.
This could easily sit on ANY major bookstore chain shelf and be indistinguishable from the major printing releases out there. The only downside is that Gilligan hasn’t released any further collections here (or anywhere) even though Pooch Café is still going strong. This is another testament, like “Compleating Cul de Sac,” as to how far the quality of Print On Demand has improved.
– Jason Marcy
Jason Marcy is a longtime autobiographical cartoonist and creator of the Jay’s Days graphic novel series, who has also written reviews and commentary for Trouble With Comics and Comic Book Galaxy.
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 henchman-for-hire, Mick Martin
The challenge of making an evil bastard sympathetic is one of the aspects of writing super-villain stories that interested me enough to start It Takes A Villain. There are different devices. You can tease the possibility of your leading villain becoming a hero, or at least more heroic. You can keep your villain unashamedly villainous, but pit him against a bad guy whose evil douchebaggery society holds in even less regard and let your readers naturally choose between the lesser of two evils. You can - and in many cases this choice represents the absolute best of super-villain-led stories - keep your bad guy unfiltered and unwashed, trusting that the readers relate to a fellow human even if that human’s morality repulses them.
Or, alternatively, you can just give the readers an evil jerk, interrupt the character’s otherwise reprehensible actions with contrived and extreme shows of sympathetic emotion, and trust your readers will go along with it whether or not it makes sense.
Parker Robbins doesn’t seem like an evil jerk right away. The Hood opens with Parker visiting his mother in some kind of rundown mental health facility. Our opinion of this caring son changes quickly, however, after Parker pulls a knife on an orderly. With a pregnant girlfriend at home, a Russian prostitute he visits nightly, and a life experienced between criminal scores and back-alley beatings, Parker doesn’t seem very impressive. You wouldn’t expect to see him headlining his own comic. At most, you might expect to find him dressed as one of Joker’s freak clowns, or some anonymous thug pressing buttons for Wilson Fisk.
One night Parker and his cousin John - thinking they’re on their way to a lucrative score - stumble upon a seemingly necrotic creature in a magic cloak and boots. Parker incapacitates the creature with his gun and, disappointed at the lack of the merchandise his cousin promised, steals the creature’s cloak and boots without any idea of the abilities they bestow; he just doesn’t want to go away empty handed. Parker soon learns the boots allow him to fly and the red cloak can make him invisible for as long as he can hold his breath.
Armed with these more formidable items from what may very well be the basement of Hogwart’s, Parker and John decide to take it to the next level and rob a shipment of priceless gems. Unfortunately, the gems’ owners are ready for trouble and have enlisted Marvel bad guy D-listers Shocker, Jack O'Lantern, and the Constrictor; along with a woman with no apparent powers beside a killer sword and the talent with which to wield it named Madame Rapier. Soon the cops, the mob, super bad guys, and the FBI are all gunning for New York City’s newest bad guy, The Hood.
The best thing about The Hood is Kyle Hotz’s art. I’ve seen his work a few times, mostly from series published after The Hood, and here his tone and storytelling style find the most fitting home. There is an inky quality to his art, not like blotted, but fluid. Like, I could picture the ink dripping onto the page and just naturally forming these dark, tendriled corners of the Marvel Universe.
I usually like Brian K. Vaughan’s writing. I enjoyed what I read of Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man, Runaways, and I just recently jumped on board Saga. But if you were to sweep together all the little problems - nitpicky or otherwise - I’ve ever had with Vaughan’s work, what you’d find assembled in the dustpan would look something very much like The Hood.
There are a lot of problems with The Hood, and every single one of them feeds into the same unfortunate outcome: I don’t give a shit about Parker Robbins.
Part of the problem with The Hood is that it’s auditioning for an ongoing monthly, but going about it the wrong way. Vaughan writes The Hood as if it already is an ongoing monthly and he has all the time in the world to introduce us to his characters. As much as we follow Parker, we know very little about him. He’s a crook and he’s young. He’s apparently unemployed though is able to dish out large sums of money for his cousin’s rehab. His father was a soldier for the Kingpin and his mother doesn’t know a clear green field from a cold steel rail. We get a couple of mentions of interest in the piano. But we really don’t know much more about him than we would some anonymous henchman who showed up for two panels to get dropkicked by Daredevil. And the series ends with little resolved. We get almost no hints about the mastermind moving the Golem and his underlings against The Hood, nor do we have any better idea about the origins of the cloak and boots that changed Parker’s life. It’s good to tease your audience into wanting more, I suppose, but you need to give them something. Give them crumbs, at least; not Polaroids of crumbs.
Vaughan’s characterization of Parker is inconsistent and sometimes just plain confuses me. Parker and his cousin John often come off as total blockheads: stupid, ignorant, selfish, clueless, and hopeless. But then in the blink of an eye, they’re freaking geniuses. Parker is outsmarting veteran mobsters and super-villains while his cousin is giving him academic lectures about blood diamonds and the history of the western world’s exploitation of Africa. Sure, there are different kinds of “smarts,” but Parker and John are randomly shown to be simultaneous geniuses and dunces in every way that could ever matter, and I was left with the inescapable conclusion that from moment-to-moment their characterizations were dependent on nothing more than what the plot needed to move forward.
One of the ugliest moments in the mini-series is also one of the most confusing. Right before they go on the job that lands Parker his magic cloak and boots, Parker and John are hanging out in a bar that may or may not be a super-villain hangout. A Hydra agent in plainclothes approaches them with an offer of work. Parker and John seem interested at first and follow the agent into the alley behind the bar. Once there, however, Parker and John beat the crap out of him, calling him a terrorist and implying that Hydra is no different than the murderers who brought the World Trade Center down. The scene feels like a hate crime, like a gay bashing or a Muslim bashing. I’m not implying Vaughan was trying to push some bigoted agenda, but regardless the scene is ugly and I still don’t really get why the hell Vaughan included it. Is it supposed to make us more sympathetic with Parker and his cousin because they delivered a beating for ‘Murica? Is it it supposed to differentiate them from the villains we’re used to? Make them more complex? Because all it does is make them seem even more stupid, more petty, and more angry. Especially considering about five seconds before they beat this nameless Hydra agent nearly to death for being a terrorist, they’re eyeing Elektro in civilian clothes and talking about him like he just stepped off a cross.
Not to mention, by the way, that there’s absolutely no consequences to the beating. Without provocation, they beat up an at least moderately important agent of one of the world’s deadliest organizations, piss on him, and rob him, and no one ever comes looking for retribution.
When Parker does manage to show us some reason to care about him, it comes off as contrived. It doesn’t match the evidence. After escaping a quartet of super-villains, Parker unintentionally shoots a pursuing police officer in the throat. The series ends with the news of the officer’s death and Parker’s response. In spite of freeing his cousin from prison and escaping death and punishment from the law and a gaggle of super criminals, Parker is struck utterly speechless. The final scene has Parker visiting his mother in the hospital again, and we get the idea he is overburdened with sadness, regret, and guilt.
For absolutely no reason that makes sense.
Before all this happens, Parker does the John Woo double-fist pistol thing at a gun shop owner whose establishment he’d just robbed. He doesn’t hit him, but not for lack of trying. He shoots both Jack O'Lantern and the Shocker in the back. When he finds the Golem’s office, he shoots one of his goons in the scrotum and seems absolutely tickled by the whole thing. While trying to rescue his cousin from jail, he shoots a federal agent in the shoulder. He indirectly causes the violent death of one of the super-villains pursuing him. Yet somehow shooting a cop who was pointing a gun at him sends him on his trip through the long, dark night of the soul? I don’t buy it and I don’t buy him.
An issue I have with Vaughan’s work in general, including The Hood, is the profanity. I don’t mind profanity. It’s fuckin’ great. But sometimes in Vaughan’s work, it seems like just about everyone in his books - no matter what age or what position in society - talk like drunken sailors and it isn’t the “obscenity” of it that bothers me. It’s the laziness. One of the best examples is when the fifth issue opens with a doctor saying, “What the fuck is going on in there?” The fuck that is going on is absolutely unremarkable and totally unworthy of the doctor’s response. “In there” is a hospital room containing a police officer in a coma and a wife who is reading a Jack London novel to her comatose husband. The doctor’s response was due to the fact that she was apparently “talking about slashing throats and shit,’ because most MDs talk like 16 year old boys in earshot of the traumatized families of comatose patients.
If you’ll forgive a rant, I think Vaughan is part of a group of writers - including Bendis and Robert Kirkman - who grew up on Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin; all writers who - though all accomplished and deserving of that accomplishment - tended to each have their own idea of how a person should ideally speak and wrote, to greater and lesser degrees, almost every character they created with precisely that voice. It’s why Bendis’s popularity continues to mystify me (though I will admit that when I like Bendis’s stuff, I love it, but that is rare). It’s why on the rare occasions I read the Walking Dead comic, there are conversation scenes in which the speakers could be of the most varied races, genders, orientations, class backgrounds, educations, whatever; and to me the whole thing will read like one person having a town hall meeting with himself.
My impression has been that The Hood was generally well received when it was released. I might be wrong. Though it never got its monthly run, the mini had enough of an impact that Bendis revived Parker Robbins as a major antagonist in some of his 653 Avengers titles. Maybe it was relevant in a way then that it just isn’t now. Maybe it was giving readers something that doesn’t matter so much now. Or maybe different people, different strokes, different boat floating techniques, etc. I don’t know.
Read Saga. Great book.
Art of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a look into the mind of the
artists of the new Triple A videogame title Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The Assassins Creed series may seem to be dwindling in the past few years, but that’s not what this review is about. This review is about the amazing work
that the artists over at Ubisoft put into the game.
While turning the pages of this book, published by Titan, and seeing all the concept art, you really get a feel for the work that goes into making a work of art. All the time and planning and revisions that they would have to do. All of the work that they put into the game, most likely because they have a passion for gaming and art. It truly shows when you look at these pictures.
When you look at the initial designs and you think to yourself “Well, that doesn’t fit the character at all.” But as you go through the book you see the artists try to amend that issue. Whether it be fine tuning of a character’s coat or the way the character shaves. You get an idea of what was going through the artist’s mind as they try to make this model perfectly fit the character the writers have laid out.
While looking at the early pictures of the city, it’s amazing to me that the games come out on a yearly basis. With all the work that goes into this and the truly breathtaking art within the book, I would think this could take many years to make. But they get it done regularly, thanks to the hard work and the dedication from the artists to put out an amazing product for people everywhere to enjoy.
This work seems like it would probably go unnoticed because it’s such a behind the scenes thing that the artists behind the game might just get no recognition; well, this review is for them. I appreciate all the work they do to help make a game great. If you have a few bucks and are at all interested in game design, pick this book up and give it a look.
– Aaron Doane
A copy was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
Note from ADD: I received an email from a reader who asked not to be named, in response to my comments in this week’s TWC Question Time regarding whether Alan Moore is still relevant. Here first is my take on the question, followed by the email I received.
Alan Moore is still relevant to me, as a reader. In fact, the only comic book I currently have my comic shop hold for me is Providence, his current 12-issue miniseries with artist Jacen Burrows that is exploring the works of H.P. Lovecraft in ways both delightful and surprising even for someone who has been reading and thinking about Lovecraft for close to 40 years (me). Some of my favourite comics of the past few years have been Moore’s collaborations with artist Kevin O’Neill on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen projects like Century, which is the third volume of the ongoing saga of their Victorian superhero team, and the spinoff Nemo graphic novels, recently collected in a gorgeous slipcased edition from publisher Top Shelf Productions.
Moore is still relevant to me as a comics critic, because every time I read a comic book I can’t help but wonder why it exists in a world where it seems like so many great works have already been done. I always ask myself “Is this good enough and interesting enough to join the pantheon of great comics works?” So I might compare some new work in some way to that of greats like Krigstein, Kirby, Pekar, Ditko, Crumb, or Moore. Usually new comics fail to meet those standards, but what a delight when they do. What a delight when they even come close.
Moore is still relevant to me as an observer of the comics industry, because he created Watchmen, which even I think is somewhat overrated but which undeniably changed the entire industry forever from practically the moment it debuted. I look at how DC has spent decades first using Moore, then cheating him, then strip-mining his creative legacy for whatever else could be wrung from its rancid corpse (made rancid by their policies and misdeeds), and I think “How can anyone work for DC? If they will fuck Alan Moore, and not just once but again and again for decades, who won’t they fuck over?” And sadly, that’s true to a lesser extent of pretty much any corporate comics company: Stan Lee himself had to sue Marvel to force them to live up to their promises, don’t forget. So I see whoever the Flavour of the Year is, swelled up with pride at their great partnership with this or that company, and I wonder how long it will be before they, too, get the Alan Moore treatment. DC has even managed to turn many of the fans themselves against him, because who has time to actually think about the facts or consider context before deciding whether to side with a great writer who is just a human being or a megacorporation with the power to chew up and spit out anyone it wants, and which does so with alarming regularity?
As a talent, Moore gave me some of the greatest comics I ever read, from Swamp Thing to Miracleman to Top 10 and Promethea and LOEG and From Hell and the list goes on, and on, and on. The fans largely hate him because they can’t understand why he is so grumpy about getting screwed over by the industry. I love him because he gave me so many great comics that I cherish and re-read frequently, because his work never fails to challenge me and expand my mind, and because I will always, always, always side with a human being who hasn’t harmed me over a giant corporation that has spent nearly a century harming and cheating those whose imaginations and skills allowed it to ever even exist in the first place.
The incredible irony to me, as a reader, is that Moore’s best work isn’t even comics. His novel The Voice of the Fire is among the most extraordinary works I have ever read, and I have read it now nearly half a dozen times. I await his next novel, Jerusalem, with great anticipation. And I will buy it with the money I might have spent on comics, if they were still capable of entertaining and challenging me in the same way Alan Moore can do with nothing more than his imagination and the power of the written word.
And now, reader JK’s response to my comments:
Just wanted to send on a note saying how much I appreciated your answer on the question of Moore – it’s effectively the most succinct, accurate and poignant summation of the situation as I’ve yet seen. And of course for anyone who cares about comics – which I guess I still do – the treatment of Moore is pretty much one of the five big questions about the medium.
(Unfortunately, the other four questions are pretty much the same with the proper nouns changed.)
Also thank god for your summation of his novel [The Voice of the Fire] – it’s a masterwork.
The previous month’s batch of Marvels were almost entirely drawn by Jack Kirby and/or Dick Ayers, so it stands to reason there was some Steve Ditko work in the pipeline, which we first see with Ditko stepping in for the second time on Incredible Hulk, bringing the series to a quick and rather well-deserved end with issue #6.
Why so harsh? Taking nothing away from Ditko’s elegant storytelling and character design, with decades of The Hulk being a fan favorite character with tons of great stories, we tend to forget his first series is marked by stagnation and missteps, and this final issue is a good example. It’s another alien invasion story, though this time it’s just one guy, The Metal Master, who, y’know, has mastery over all metal, resulting in melted or redirected missiles and such. It’s a job for The Hulk, but Bruce Banner’s repeated exposure to Gamma radiation has resulted in a glitch–he’s the Hulk with Banner’s head.
Hulk has to put on a mask, and he’s unable to beat Metal Master, but at least his Hulk head grows in (that’s the last time I’ll write that sentence). The military takes Hulk into custody, and he blames Rick Jones, threatening to kill him like The Hulk of old (Issue #1). Rick, brokenhearted, wants to be of some use to someone if he’s not useful to Hulk, but he’s too young to enlist in the Army, so he forms the Teen Brigade with his buddies, a kind of ham radio outfit that spreads info around to help stop crimes. Once Hulk turns back to Banner, Rick helps him get the tubes and circuits he needs for his plan to stop Metal Master. He changes back into Hulk (but one who’s smart enough to remember the plan), and takes his weapon to M.M., taunting him by telling him it’s a kind of metal he can’t control. Metal Master gets increasingly frustrated until Hulk is able to get close and threaten him until he agrees to restore Earth’s metal and skedaddle off the planet. If you guessed the weapon was just plastic and cardboard painted to look metal, you are at least ten years old.
Hulk is actually kind of appreciative of Rick and his Teen Brigade’s help, but it’s short-lived, as he goes apoplectic that the government has given him a pardon for saving Earth from Metal Master. Just a lousy pardon. He’s upset because he can’t seem to change back to Banner, so he’s going to have to hide out in caves the rest of his life. This is the opposite of the initial characterization of Hulk, who wanted nothing to do with Banner and was made he had to share a body with him. But when Hulk gets angry, he turns back to Banner, as we all know…wait, they sure changed a lot about Hulk over the years. We end with Bruce unwilling to confide in Betty about his relationship with The Hulk, but at least they both admit they have feelings for each other, while Rick worries that the gamma machine will be Banner’s doom eventually. Besides a couple nice bits, it’s a pretty dumb story.
Hulk isn’t gone long, as he shows up in Fantastic Four #12. After the amusing character nugget that The Thing prefers “low down New Orleans jazz” to classical music, he’s mistaken for The Hulk and attacked by the Army in Manhattan. Kirby continues to come up with interesting uses for the team’s powers, with Thing having to climb the elevator cable 35 floors up. When Ben gets to the top to rejoin the rest of the team just in time for General Ross to arrive to ask for their help defeating The Hulk. The three men describe how each would stop Hulk, while Mr. Fantastic agrees with Ross that Invisible Girl’s role is to “keep the men’s morale up.” Yikes. We see the redesigned Fantasti-Car. Mr. Fantastic then meets Bruce Banner for the first time and then, ironically, it’s time to search for The Hulk, right after a funny gag where Thing proves his strength by ripping Ross’ “bound set of telephone books” in half.
There have been a series of sabotages of military weapons, including Banner’s Project 34, a kind of electromagnetic shield to make cities impervious to missile attacks. Who’s The Wrecker? Well, we did see that one of Banner’s new colleagues, Karl Kort, looks like a weasel. A dumb weasel, too, as he loses his wallet and Rick Jones finds he’s literally a card-carrying member of a Communist subversive organization. Then the rails for the Army’s new rocket sled are sabotaged, and everyone but Banner is convinced it’s The Hulk’s doing, and of course, he can’t tell them how he knows, so they don’t trust him. He feels he has no choice but to become Hulk again.
We get a pretty good fight between Hulk and the Fantastic Three and then Thing goes off and finds The Wrecker, who has an atomic rifle aimed at him. And while it was crappy how they set things up to marginalize Invisible Girl again, it’s nice that she saves the day and knocks out The Wrecker.
But enough about average to mediocre issues, let’s look at something significant: Amazing Spider-Man #1, with Lee and Ditko giving the character his own book after the huge fan response to Amazing Fantasy #15. We get a recap of Spider-Man’s origin, but what’s most interesting is the emphasis on real, human need. Peter Parker’s Aunt May can’t make rent, so he decides to show off his skills as Spider-Man at a live show, smartly preserving his cover as Peter by pretending to have no interest in the costumed hero. But again, bad luck and a little arrogance get in the way, and Peter finds he can’t cash a check made out to Spider-Man without identification. Meanwhile, Daily Bugle editor/publisher J. Jonah Jameson is stirring up the populace against Spidey, characterizing him as a masked menace and bad influence on children, the opposite of his astronaut son, John, who’s about to orbit Earth in a rocket.
There’s an error, and Jameson’s capsule goes into an erratic orbit, and only Spider-Man can save him, despite JJJ’s protests. Spidey does save John and the capsule, leaving right after so as to not take the spotlight from John, but it’s for naught, as JJJ writes a scathing editorial accusing Spider-Man of sabotaging the capsule for his own fame, and it has the result of making him feared and hated more than ever, and now wanted by the FBI. As Lee dramatically concludes the story, “And so, a lonely boy sits and broods, with the fate of Society at stake!”
But that’s just the first story in the issue, as we’re next introduced to one of Spider-Man’s enduring villains, The Chameleon. But first, it seems that this month Lee got a symmetry bug up his ass, because The Fantastic Four are in this issue. It makes a little bit of sense – Peter thinks the FF would be happy to have him join the team, and then he can make money for Aunt May (guess he didn’t know the FF went broke recently – but it requires him to be arrogant again, not a great fit for a hero in general, definitely not a great fit when we’ve already seen in the previous story that the selfless but unsuccessful Peter Parker is a plenty compelling character. There’s certainly room to explore an arrogant arc if he achieves some success, but not only has he not, his first show of overconfidence and selfishness in his origin story led to the death of his Uncle Ben, the defining moment of his character. As good as Lee and Ditko can be together, it feels like they’re not on the same page with the character, or one or neither of them quite know exactly what they want to do with him.
Spider-Man breaks into the Baxter Building to impress them, and there’s an entertaining fight, or as Spider-Man sees it, an exhibition of his abilities, before Mr. Fantastic asks him what he wants. Impressive as his powers and agility are, the contempt with which Spider-Man holds the team would have blown his audition even if the F.F. was a for-profit organization able to provide the salary he so desperately needs. From what we saw of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, where is this attitude coming from? Spider leaves in a huff, with the wise Mr. Fantastic predicting they’ll hear more from him in the future.
The Chameleon is introduced, another thief willing to sell out his country to the Iron Curtain if the price is right (I think in later years, it’s established he’s Eastern European himself, and related to another Spider-Man enemy to come, Kraven the Hunter). What makes The Chameleon interesting at all is that he’s a master of disguise, a maker of endless latex masks and makeup so that he can become any man he needs to be. And he’s no dummy, learning of Spider-Man’s failed FF audition and concluding he must need money, making him an ideal target to frame for The Chameleon’s latest heist. He somehow sends a message that only Spidey’s senses can detect, telling him to meet somewhere for details on a paying job. At the building, Chameleon dresses up as Spider-Man, takes some missile plans with a web gun. Spider-Man figures out what’s going on, and after an exciting sequence involving helicopters and submarines (the Russians Chameleon was going to sell the plans to), Spider-Man seemingly captures Chameleon, only to lose him again, leaving the scene thinking he’s been framed, and actually sobbing over his inability to make anything go right, although he doesn’t know Chameleon, wearing a torn police uniform that reveals his faux Spider-Man costume underneath, is actually captured. So, sort of a win, although it’s novel that our hero doesn’t know it. And that he’s crying. The plotting is mostly perfunctory but the angst elevates this issue.
Tales of Suspense #39 gives stalwart, unsung artist Don Heck his first shot at a Marvel superhero, and while he’s not the most distinctive artist, his background in romance comics is put to good use depicting the world of glamorous playboy inventor Anthony Stark, though the captions warn us he is soon to become the most tragic hero on Earth (Stark, not Don Heck). Take the panel where South Vietnamese tyrant Wong-Chu is showing his martial arts skills and tell me it couldn’t pass for one by David Mazzucchelli in the late ‘80s – he’s really very good (but ignore the recent computer recoloring that adds some sloppy extra tones to Wong-Chu’s outfit).
So, yes, rather than Communist agents trying to infiltrate the U.S., this time we have a story set in Vietnam, the conflict there mentioned for the first time in a Marvel comic. It presents a new problem for the creators, as the other stories were about Communist plotting in an ill-defined Cold War involving trying to steal weapons or plans for weapons that were never used and didn’t actually need to be used, since there was no official war. But here we have Stark in Vietnam, with U.S. soldiers able to move faster and quieter because their mortars are fitted with tiny transistors, a potential game-changer in an actual war. But, perhaps smartly, Lee and scripter Larry Lieber stick to their formula of the villain, Wong-Chu, being a small-time despot who has no real impact on the war.
Stark, ridiculously wearing a trench coat in the the jungle, is injured by a booby-trap, the shrapnel due to reach his heart in mere days (the body pushes out splinters but sucks in shrapnel, you know). Wong-Chu knows who Stark is, putting him to work making a weapon with fellow prisoner, brilliant Vietnamese physicist and dissident, Professor Yinsen, promising Stark he will cure him upon completion. Stark isn’t buying it, so he and Yinsen conspire to make the Iron Man armor to both keep Stark alive when the shrapnel reaches his heart and also defeat Wong-Chu.
When Wong-Chu is about to discover their work, Yinsen causes a diversion, sacrificing himself and allowing Stark to get in the armor and escape, though he soon appears to challenge Wong-Chu to a fight, defeating him easily. Wong-Chu tries to get away, and Iron Man, energy almost depleted, squirts a trail of oil to the ammo dump where Wong-Chu is running, setting it on fire and killing him with the resulting explosion. Pretty hard-hitting stuff, though it doesn’t leave much time to consider the tragic aspects of Stark and his cumbersome, life-saving armor. But it’s a very sturdy story with cooperation, sacrifice and real dramatic stakes; no wonder it was just expanded but not changed for the first Iron Man film.
I said “enough about mediocre issues” above, but we’re not quite done with them. Journey into Mystery, with poor art by Al Hartley (just look at the artless way he draws a mirror or his awkward, feeble Don Blake, or the Xartans, who just look like orange-skinned wrestlers), would almost be a fill-in issue except that it does have an important plot point. When Don Blake decides he’s going to tell Jane Foster of his feelings and his identity as Thor, Odin appears to him to forbid it, effectively cursing the man to live out his days alone and miserable.
Blake soon finds the city has gone insane, with polka dot bridges and locked doors and free healthcare being against the law (can you imagine it?!). Even the Mayor, whom Thor considers a friend, wants him behind bars, and Thor thinks back to some advice from Odin about trusting the most obvious explanation (what we now refer to as Odin’s Razor), leading Thor to conclude that the people involved in this craziness are impostors. Searching for answers, Thor is caught by the powerful magnet of Ugarth and son Zano, two alien invaders from the planet Xarta, who are able to impersonate anyone. It’s part of a rather slow-moving plan to confuse the populace one city at a time, softening them up for a huge invasion armada waiting just out of orbit.
The fight between Thor and the Xartans is too boring to go into, but after he wins, in a variation on how the Fantastic Four handled the Skrulls, Thor has a few Xartans stay behind as hostages to ensure the armada stays away, and commands them to become trees. They think they can just change later and get away, but Thor knows that they take on the attributes of what they impersonate, and since trees can’t think, they’ll stay that way. The very ending is a refutation of the whole Don/Jane tragic non-romance storyline, as Don breaks the fourth wall to smirk at the reader as he tells Jane, “We can’t all be as brave as Thor!” Yuck. Best to skip over this one.
Tales to Astonish #41, by Lee/Lieber/Heck, isn’t that bad, but not worth another lengthy recap. Dr. Pym is captured with several other scientists by alien warlord Kulla, and they’re forced to make a death ray for him. Pym gets himself thrown into solitary so he can become Ant-Man, then takes on Kulla and his men. He’s incapacitated again by the paralyzing liquid that first got him, but his thoughts still work, so he has his ant friends aim the completed death ray on Kulla. The scientists, presumably among the world’s smartest, neither know nor care how Ant-Man saved them.
Finally, Strange Tales #106, by Lee/Lieber/Ayers. Unlike previous issues, this one appears to be drawn entirely by Dick Ayers without any Kirby layouts, credited or uncredited. Ayers draws the F.F. a little more cartoonish, and Mr. Fantastic almost has a crewcut. The story involves a Carl Zante, “The Acrobat,” who convinces Human Torch he’s being exploited in the Fantastic Four, and they can make more money and have more glory as The Torrid Twosome. Torch goes along with it, and their first job is to rescue a bank teller locked in a vault. Of course, there’s nobody in the vault and The Acrobat just wants the dough. Johnny is winged by The Acrobat’s bullet, but the F.F., who never trusted the guy, are there to stop him driving away. Nonetheless, he does escape on foot, his proto-Parkour skill set giving the injured Torch a tough time before he finally brings him to heel. Torch says he never trusted the guy and was just playing along, and the F.F., and, I guess, the readers accept the lie. It certainly isn’t much different than the last time The Torch suit the team. The one interesting bit from the story is the revelation that everyone in town apparently knows Johnny’s the Torch, but since he doesn’t talk about it, they let him have his privacy.
Next week: not as momentous a month in Marvel history, unless you’re a big Red Ghost fan (he debuts in Fantastic Four #13), but Sub-Mariner returns, this time in solo action against Human Torch in Strange Tales #107. And Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man have their vastly-different-sized hands full with some lesser villains.
Jonathan Case’s The New Deal is a lovely little book with a number of surprising twists. Set in 1936, the book has three main characters. Frank is the first character introduced to the reader; primarily a bellhop at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, we meet him handing out flyers for Orson Welles’s Voodoo Macbeth and soon learn that he has a bit of a gambling problem. Next up is Theresa, a maid at the same hotel where Frank works. She possesses other aspirations though, and is playing a witch in Voodoo Macbeth. Frank’s handing out the flyers because of a not-well-hidden crush on Theresa which seems to be mutual. Finally, the mysterious Nina rounds out the major players. Allegedly coming from old money, Nina tips both Frank and Theresa generously, too much so, which arouses the latter’s suspicions.
From the first couple of chapters, my expectation was that Case was producing a work similar to Richard Linklater’s little-seen film Me and Orson Welles, where Zac Effron plays a young man desperate to be involved in Welles’s 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar. Case goes in quite a different direction, and Welles’s play merely provides a resonant backdrop rather than acting as the center of the story. It’s not a random selection by Case, as the play Macbeth resonates strongly with the plot twists in the book, that it’s this specific production works doubly, as it was funded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Welles’s then-revolutionary decision to move the play to Haiti and cast African-Americans works with Case’s themes regarding race. Similarly, the title of the book is obviously a reference to Roosevelt’s economic program in the 1930s, but it also describes the relationship that evolves between Frank, Theresa, and Nina.
As enjoyable as the plot and characters are in the book, the
real star is Case’s artwork. The clothes, furniture, cars, jewelry, buildings
all come across as meticulously detailed and utterly gorgeous. Unlike some
artists, Case’s figure work does not suffer at all by comparison. They are all
beautiful examples of cartooning with a whiff of Stan Drake about them. In the
past, I’ve only seen Case’s work on Jeff Parker’s Batman ’66, where his
work was good, but not quite this good. The New Deal has me not only
eagerly anticipating a sequel, but wanting to pick up his other work, such as Dear
Creature and Green River Killer.
– Joe Gualtieri
We conclude our month long tribute to Alan Moore by asking, is he still relevant in 2015?
Tim Durkee: I feel guilty about even participating in this week’s question, since I am not familiar with much of Moore’s recent work. Then I figured I could answer this question just by how the majority of retailers that I have seen, hell, it’s all of them (what they carry and how or do they promote his material when released) and do consumers care for what is being published. My naked eye sees that Alan Moore is not relevant in 2015. I don’t think I have seen one piece of advertisement in any comic store (aside from projects based on his creations, that he had nothing to do with) making me aware that Alan Moore has a new release… ever. I have a feeling if he was to make an appearance at a store the owner would sell, “Come meet comic book legend Alan Moore this Saturday. The co-creator of Watchmen will be here from noon to 3pm.” Moore does his own thing with small publishers, so he will not be seen as relevant to the comic book fan. I’m sure any new material will have to be special ordered because the store owner does not see any sense in carrying it when his customer wants the super mega crossover that will change the universe forever first issue. He is still relevant to his fans? Of course. To the comic book fan in 2015? No.
Mike Sterling: So the question this time ‘round is if Alan Moore is still relevant to comics, now, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Fifteen? Yes, he blew all our American minds when he dropped into our funnybooks back in the early '80s, after presumably blowing British minds in 2000 A.D. over there in Jolly Ol’. He reinvented horror comics using a character on the verge of cancellation. He wrote a superhero graphic novel that was a masterpiece of worldbuilding. He wrote a Joker story that he considers one of his lesser works but, decades later, still influences both comic creators and filmmakers in their interpretations of the character. He interwove an enormous number of preexisting fictional characters into a new interconnected narrative, and made it work as an entertaining story rather than a tedious intellectual exercise. He wrote a meticulously researched and terrifying Jack the Ripper yarn. He reinvented and revamped characters. He created new fun, lighthearted comics to counter his own involvement in the “grim 'n’ gritty” trend. He explored his belief systems, he parodied the art form, he challenged his readers, and he wrote and he wrote and he wrote.
really, what has he done for us lately?
Yes, I’m being facetious. Alan Moore is still an active creator doing interesting work that attracts notice and discussion in his medium of choice. That alone makes him still relevant. And even if he wasn’t still working in the industry, his influence would still be felt. What was DC’s Vertigo imprint initially if not a sort of four-color Alan Moore cargo cult, hoping to recapture something like the excitement, the awareness that this is something different, regarding Moore's writing but hopefully without the part where they alienate the talent into taking its toys elsewhere? How many of Moore’s one-shot ideas from various Green Lantern shorts are still being exploited in Green Lantern comics today? And how often is the answer "Watchmen!“ when the call goes out for the most outstanding achievements in the field?
Certainly a lot of that is indicative of the constant self-cannibalism of the comics industry, always looking back at its peaks and trying to scale them again, eventually wearing them down to tiny hills. But Moore’s writing is a pinnacle of the art form for a reason, and it’s no wonder that it casts as long of a shadow as it does. The vast majority of creative output in any field eventually falls to the wayside, forgotten, leaving only the giants who can endure the passage of time and the frailty of human memory to remain as examples. And even if most of Moore’s work fades away, if the comics medium survives at all, rest assured folks will still be talking about, or ripping off, Watchmen at the very least.
In an odd sort of way, even the idea that someone wants to ask "Is Moore still relevant?” shows that Moore is still relevant, that his work is still worthy of study. Who would ask, if he didn’t matter at all?
Alan David Doane: Alan Moore is still relevant to me, as a reader. In fact, the only comic book I currently have my comic shop hold for me is Providence, his current 12-issue miniseries with artist Jacen Burrows that is exploring the works of H.P. Lovecraft in ways both delightful and surprising even for someone who has been reading and thinking about Lovecraft for close to 40 years (me). Some of my favourite comics of the past few years have been Moore’s collaborations with artist Kevin O’Neill on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen projects like Century, which is the third volume of the ongoing saga of their Victorian superhero team, and the spinoff Nemo graphic novels, recently collected in a gorgeous slipcased edition from publisher Top Shelf Productions.
Moore is still relevant to me as a comics critic, because every time I read a comic book I can’t help but wonder why it exists in a world where it seems like so many great works have already been done. I always ask myself “Is this good enough and interesting enough to join the pantheon of great comics works?” So I might compare some new work in some way to that of greats like Krigstein, Kirby, Pekar, Ditko, Crumb, or Moore. Usually new comics fail to meet those standards, but what a delight when they do. What a delight when they even come close.
Moore is still relevant to me as an observer of the comics industry, because he created Watchmen, which even I think is somewhat overrated but which undeniably changed the entire industry forever from practically the moment it debuted. I look at how DC has spent decades first using Moore, then cheating him, then strip-mining his creative legacy for whatever else could be wrung from its rancid corpse (made rancid by their policies and misdeeds), and I think “How can anyone work for DC? If they will fuck Alan Moore, and not just once but again and again for decades, who won’t they fuck over?” And sadly, that’s true to a lesser extent of pretty much any corporate comics company: Stan Lee himself had to sue Marvel to force them to live up to their promises, don’t forget. So I see whoever the Flavour of the Year is, swelled up with pride at their great partnership with this or that company, and I wonder how long it will be before they, too, get the Alan Moore treatment. DC has even managed to turn many of the fans themselves against him, because who has time to actually think about the facts or consider context before deciding whether to side with a great writer who is just a human being or a megacorporation with the power to chew up and spit out anyone it wants, and which does so with alarming regularity?
As a talent, Moore gave me some of the greatest comics I ever read, from Swamp Thing to Miracleman to Top 10 and Promethea and LOEG and From Hell and the list goes on, and on, and on. The fans largely hate him because they can’t understand why he is so grumpy about getting screwed over by the industry. I love him because he gave me so many great comics that I cherish and re-read frequently, because his work never fails to challenge me and expand my mind, and because I will always, always, always side with a human being who hasn’t harmed me over a giant corporation that has spent nearly a century harming and cheating those whose imaginations and skills allowed it to ever even exist in the first place.
The incredible irony to me, as a reader, is that Moore’s best work isn’t even comics. His novel The Voice of the Fire is among the most extraordinary works I have ever read, and I have read it now nearly half a dozen times. I await his next novel, Jerusalem, with great anticipation. And I will buy it with the money I might have spent on comics, if they were still capable of entertaining and challenging me in the same way Alan Moore can do with nothing more than his imagination and the power of the written word.
A couple weeks ago, I posted a picture on Facebook of the gorgeous Archie vs. Predator hardcover published by Dark Horse and jokingly referred to it as the best comic of the year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic and fun, a perfect blending of two properties that should have nothing do with each other in a way that hasn’t been seen since, well, Archie Meets Punisher came out in 1994. Archie #4 though, by Mark Waid, Annie Wu, Andre Szymanowicz, and Jen Vaughn actually is that good.
The first three issues of the rebooted Archie series,
by Waid and Fiona Staples, are all great comics. They feel like Archie
stories, but updated for contemporary times, and move away from the short story
format where nothing really changes to an on-going story, focusing mainly on
the relationship between Archie, Betty, and the new-in-town Veronica. That
changes in #4. This isn’t something possible before the reboot because nothing
ever changed, because every story was resolved in eight pages. The closest
Archie Comics ever got to something like this is probably Life with Archie,
the series largely written by Paul Kupperberg which detailed what would have
happened if Archie had married Betty or Veronica, with a story for each
parallel timeline in every issue. That series was still grounded in the old
aesthetic, which kept it from getting too emotionally real, and the fact that
up until the botched ending* it was two separate stories made any consequences
feel mitigated. Nothing about Archie #4 feels mitigated. This is the
most emotionally devastating mainstream comic I’ve read since Grant Morrison
and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman #6 back in 2007.
* The final issue of Life With Archie, the highly publicized “Death of Archie,” only has one story, and avoids specific reference to either timeline to, in theory, make it work as an ending for both. As a result it feels cheap and gimmicky.
For those who haven’t read the new series up to this point, Archie and Betty were couple and broke up just prior to #1. Waid spent the first three issues building up the mystery of “the Lipstick Incident” and in the-format changing #4, the reader finally learns the details. The issue opens with Archie and Jughead jamming in Archie’s garage. Jughead upsets Archie and offers him part of a candy bar, “the thing he values most” as a peace offering, and this just upsets Archie more. He then begins speaking to the reader, and flashes back to the time when he was still dating Betty. There’s an ominous scene with the two of them discussing how happy they are and how they don’t want things to change, followed by an idyllic montage of them having fun together, and then the Lipstick Incident starts.
The two share a gooey candy bar, the same brand Jughead offers Archie in the opening sequence, which gets every all over the two of them and attracts ants. They run for a restroom, where Archie overhears two young women making fun of the tomboyish Betty, and asks them to be nicer to her. Such is Archie’s popularity that they sort of befriend Betty, but while spending time with her make subtle digs at her unwillingness to adopt a traditionally female role and try to change her. Betty resists this until the two girls are with her when she makes a date with Archie to go see a horror film. They insist on giving her a makeover, which is hidden at first from the reader. Instead, in a masterful bit of storytelling, we see how other people in the neighborhood, specifically other boys, react to this “new” Betty, and all the reader sees of Betty is a small smile, suggesting that maybe this is a change she likes. Archie and the reader witness the results of the makeover together, and he is clearly unnerved by it.
Still, they go to the movie together, where Archie tries to share a candy bar with Betty (the same brand as earlier) and she declines, fearing it would ruin her dress. He’s more uncomfortable then ever at this point, and the tension is heightened by their choice of film, as the dialogue in the film about the physical change of its werewolf seem to comment on how Archie feels about Betty (and recall the opening of the flashback). It eventually becomes too much for Betty and she runs from the theater. Archie follows, she asks why he’s “acting so weird.” He turns the question back on Betty, which causes her to hit him with her purse, spilling its contents on the ground. Betty tells him, “I know you look at girls dressed like this.” The accusation and Archie’s defensive response implying that Archie likes the tomboyish Betty not because he really loves her, but because she’s easier for him to deal with and he does not really appreciate her. Holding a tub of lipstick, he claims, “This! This is the crap that doesn’t belong on you! Where’s the Betty I know?” Incensed, she grabs the lipstick and smears it across Archie’s face telling him, “Funny. You’re still you.” The rest of the issue is a little more narration from Archie, followed by a little advancement of the soap opera plot (including the reboot debut of Reggie).
The two central pages with Archie’s rant and Betty’s rejoinder are just astounding. On a purely dramatic level, this is just excellent writing on Waid’s part for a teenage couple having a spat about growing up and growing apart. In another way, there’s obvious feminist subtext to the scene (and the story in general); Betty can be whatever and whoever she wants, regardless of Archie’s desires. That the story expresses this by having Betty switch from a more traditionally masculine persona to a stereotypical version of femininity in a comic written by a man does seem problematic at first glance, but Waid and Wu keep a clear focus on Betty’s feelings, which suggests a more open, feminist message of Betty being able to be whatever self she wants rather than just adhering to one version of womanhood. Finally, there’s a metatextual element to the argument, as it’s easy to read Archie as standing in for the traditional fan of Archie comics, questioning why the object of his affection felt the need to change after so long, with the lipstick specifically standing in for a style other than Dan DeCarlo’s. Three issues is, this works better than it would have in the first issue, because the reader has seen that despite the stylistic changes, the new Archie is still, at its core, the old Archie.
When the nominees for the 2016 Eisner awards are announced, expect to see this issue nominated for best single issue.
While it lacks the formal daring of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s “Pizza is my
Business” from Hawkeye #11 (the last single issue I recall feeling so
strongly about), this issue is so masterfully done by Waid, Wu, Szymanowicz, and
Vaughn that not getting at least a nomination is inconceivable.
– Joe Gualtieri
DK1: The Dark Knight Returns
Imperfect, but good. Unfortunately, much like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, its influence was detrimental to comics as both an industry and an artform, as the generation of comics creators that followed largely copied the surface elements of both landmark works, focusing on spectacle and violence instead of nuance, innovation and insight.
DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again
Miller was intoxicated by the freedom he found in the indy comics he’d been reading, particularly those of James Kochalka, who he cited as an influence. DK2 is absolute garbage, but Miller’s friends and apologists perfected the “if you don’t like it, it’s cuz you don’t get the joke bwah ha ha” defense. 9/11 happened during its creation, and Miller permanently lost his shit, so the end of it was both delayed and even worse than the beginning.
DK3: Holy Terror
A story so awful, so racist and insane that DC very likely refused to publish it (Miller claims it was his idea, but given how lousy his other DC work has been for decades, that claim is highly suspect), so Miller whited-out Batman’s ears and published it elsewhere.
DK4: All-Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder
Hilariously terrible, an obvious cousin of DK2 in tone, with sterile art by Jim Lee, who might have made a fine inker or architect, but is a terrible, terrible visual storyteller. Luckily, this one had no story to tell anyway, and was never finished, not that anyone cares, except the retailers who lost their shirts investing in all those comics that will never sell because it’s unfinished.
DK5: The Master Race
In stores this week, pretending to be DK3. Before Watchmen scabs Azzarello and Kubert turn in the best DKR fanfic you could hope for, not that anyone with good taste in comics was hoping for it. Perhaps the largest insult to comics that this unnecessary cash-in provides is stealing the name of the greatest short story in the history of the comics artform. The only good thing to come out of it will be inker Klaus Janson getting a paycheck, which he well deserves, since his partnership artistically with Miller in the late ‘70s and early '80s on Daredevil basically created Miller’s reputation, which hasn’t been earned much at all since Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, neither of which Miller even drew, because by then his drawing ability was already either deteriorating (if you’re a cynic like me) or “evolving.” I’m not including Batman: Year One in this guide, both because it is not really connected to the mostly-awful Dark Knight Saga Miller has foisted upon the world, and because it’s actually good comics, largely thanks to the subtle beauty and classic artistry David Mazzucchelli brought to it, along with a restraint from writer Miller that he literally would never be capable of again in his comics-making career. The point of this guide, really is to tell you what to avoid, and in what order, so Year One has nothing to do with it.
DK6: Frank Miller Won’t Go Away
Sadly, probably on the way eventually.
– Alan David Doane
It Takes A Villain is TWC’s (when I’m not a lazy moron) bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role, brought to you by your favorite sea monster, Mick Martin
Superior Spider-Man was
refreshing in ways it had no right to be. At this point in the story
of Marvel and of big company super-hero comics in general; an idea
this mineable, this smart, this new yet classic, and this good
seems almost criminally
A dying Doctor Octopus does the ol’ brain-switch with Spider-Man. Ock’s mind goes in Spider-Man’s body, while Peter Parker’s mind is saddled with Ock’s dying shell. When Ock’s body dies, Peter Parker’s mind presumably dies along with it, leaving one of Spidey’s greatest enemies in control of the hero’s body without anyone realizing it. Octavius is transferred Parker’s memories and with the transfer comes at least a fraction of Parker’s sense of responsibility. Otto vows to live the rest of his life as Spider-Man, and as a better Spider-Man than Parker ever could be. The story of Otto’s attempt at the life of a hero is chronicled in Superior Spider-Man.
There’s a lot of great stuff in Superior Spider-Man I could talk about.
I could talk about writer Dan Slott’s masterful storytelling; how he knows our expectations, tickles them endlessly, and dashes them against the rocks. He knew, had to know, that as soon as the premise of Superior Spider-Man was announced that – along with the mobs of angry-email-writing fans who have been reading Marvel Comics for decades and somehow still manage to believe it when the writers tell them they’re killing off a headlining character for good – there would be mobs of nay-saying fans predicting the whole thing would last about five minutes before Peter Parker returned. So, Slott fed those expectations. By the end of the very first issue we learn that Peter Parker – or at least some remnant of his memories – has survived and follows Otto like an angry ghost. “I am Peter Parker,” the ghostly Peter tells us. “And I swear I will find a way back!” Ghost Peter follows Otto around the city, sometimes able to subconsciously affect his usurper and make him do good in spite of himself, and eventually is able to gain a fraction of physical control over his body and even make Otto hear his voice. Slott builds the story we’re expecting – the story of Parker regaining control of his life and his body through sheer force of will – and then he tears our expectations down around our ears, laughing. He stages a psychic battle between Otto and Parker in which Peter is not only defeated, but his memories are wiped from him utterly and we watch him die a second time, not heroically, but pathetically, stammering, unable to remember his own name as a psychic mountain crashes on top of him.
does it again and again when the Superior Spider-Man clashes with the
Avengers and later when he runs into Spider-Man 2099. We keep
thinking, “Oh, this is it, he’s toast this time,” but Otto keeps
the wool firmly pulled over everyone’s eyes. And what’s truly genius
isn’t that Slott is keeping his new status-quo intact, but eventually
we realize – like it or not – he’s got us rooting for Otto.
could talk about how even though this is just about as new and
a Spider-Man concept as you could expect, in some ways it returns the
character to its roots. Over the years, plenty of characters have
learned Spider-Man’s secret identity: lovers, allies, enemies and
friends. Civil War made
Spider-Man’s identity public, but then there was something with
Mephisto where it all got rebooted, I don’t know, I blinked for that.
Regardless, with Superior Spider-Man we
get a Spider-Man who is once again juggling
the dueling responsibilities of his personal life, his professional
life, and his crimefighting life with literally no
in his life who knows his secret. Hiding your secret identity? It’s
been done to death. But hiding your secret identity’s secret
identity? That’s new.
Otto may not share Parker’s sense of good or responsibility, but just
as Peter was in the beginning, he is utterly alone.
could talk about the art which, especially considering how quickly
artistic teams shift these days, was remarkably consistent. Most of
the series is penciled by either Ryan Stegman, Giuseppe Camuncoli, or
Humberto Ramos. Stegman’s and Ramos’s styles are similar enough that
in some cases when I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t realize the
penciler was different. Camuncoli’s style is the most distinct of the
three. Stegman and Ramos share a Superior Spider-Man who is thinner,
lankier, more naturally bent into his unnaturally wild and cool
mid-swing impossible poses. Camuncoli’s Otto-Spidey is more buff. The
overall design of Superior Spider-Man’s outfit is impressive. I
didn’t even really notice at first that there was that much of a
difference. Rather than going all dark like the classic black
symbitoe costume, they keep red prominent while shifting most of the
classically blue areas to a black that could, without close
inspection, very well be just a darker blue. The way Stegman draws
the eyes of Otto’s Spider-mask is one of the most distinct and
interesting differences. Otto’s Spidey-eyes aren’t just cloth, but
some kind of goggles that display info or allow Otto to see in
different spectrums; kind of reminiscent of Batman’s goggles in
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Stegman draws the eyes more prominent on the mask than usual, and
very white, and ironically in spite of the fact that this isn’t the
“real” Spider-Man, it has the effect of making his eyes seem more
like an insect’s than ever.
rather than a pure pros and cons review, I want to talk about what
may very well be about even though I doubt Slott never meant for it
from start-to-finish, there was something about Superior
Spider-Man that I found
simultaneously compelling, frustrating, and impossible to define.
There was just something about it; something that I felt like it was
telling me, that maybe it wasn’t necessarily meaning to tell me, but
was coming through anyway. It was on the tip of my mind. It was only
when I remembered the following story – a personal story that I
will tell as briefly as I can – that I realized what it is that,
more than anything, stands out for me about Superior
an addiction and the object of my addiction was something I was
trying to avoid when, on the way home during heavy, traffic-killing
snow in the winter of 2013, I stopped at a liquor store and bought a
bottle of crème liqeur and a bottle of tequila. To be clear; I have
an addiction, but I am not an alcoholic. I have never been a habitual
or heavy drinker. I had no conscious purpose to buying the liquor. I
just had money and it was on the way home. By the end of that week, I
had been drunk at home, alone, every single night. One morning, at
the end of the week, finally honest with myself that what I was doing
was scaring me, I dumped the remaining liquor in the sink.
talked to my therapist – a recovering addict herself – she said
it was more than normal; it was expected. When you put one addiction
down, you try to replace it with something else. It was like, she
said, “putting an octopus to bed.” You tuck one arm under the
covers and seven more pop out.
I’m not saying Superior Spider-Man is
about addiction. I don’t think it is about addiction.
think it’s about insanity.
series opens with a scene that quickly becomes a joke. Not funny
ha-ha, but just plain ridiculous. Otto Octavius in Peter Parker’s
body stands over his own (Otto’s) grave. “I’ve come to say goodbye
to my old life,” he tells us in the narration. “From now on my
name is Peter Parker.” Otto’s symbolic rebirth is interrupted by an
emergency alert that draws him into his first super-battle with the
newly formed Sinister Six, and his reaction to the new Six is just
the first of many signs that Otto’s promises that he is letting go of
his own life are empty. Rather than a heroic battle cry or a
Spidey-quip, the Superior Spider-Man swings into action pissed off
that the name of his old team has been co-opted: “Well, I guess
they’re letting ANYONE call themselves the Sinister Six these days.”
He battles the vigilante Cardiac to a standstill – almost causing
the death of a little girl in the process – when he learns Cardiac
has stolen one of his old Doc Ock inventions. He literally doesn’t
know how to not act
like a super-villain. On a date with Mary Jane he says about the
date, like a Bond villain, “Everything’s proceeding according to
plan.” After his first battle with the new Sinister Six, he
commandeers their robot, The Living Brain, for his own personal
assistant. He creates a horde of “spider-bots” to patrol the
city, watch the populace, and alert him of any crimes. When he learns
that Peter Parker never earned a doctorate, he shoves all of his
priorities aside in order to get that D and R back in front of his
(such as it is) name. When he takes on the Kingpin, he doesn’t accost
Kingpin’s underlings or sneak into his home to snoop for clues. He
attacks Wilson Fisk’s base of operations with an army of mercenaries
supported by giant freaking spider robots. Toward the end of the
series, when Green Goblin – who has learned Otto’s secret –
offers Otto the chance at a partnership, Otto’s refusal has less to
do with any moral dilemmas or even any grudges, but at the
indignation of being offered the chance to be Green Goblin’s
interesting is the Superior Spider-Man’s takeover of The Raft. The
villain Spider-Slayer is scheduled to be executed at the super-prison
right before its decommissioning. Jonah Jameson requests Spider-Man’s
presence at the execution. Just before he arrives at The Raft, Otto
tells us in his narration, “I’m the Superior Spider-Man. And I will
be free.” Otto was a prisoner aboard The Raft when he took over
Parker’s body. Before the execution and the inevitable escape
attempt, Otto tours the prison, remembering the indignities and pains
he suffered there. Regardless, after the smoke clears, Otto
blackmails Mayor Jameson into letting him keep The Raft as his own
right after declaring his freedom, Otto not only willing goes to a
prison where he was once an inmate, but he willingly makes that
prison his home. He actually goes out of his way to blackmail a
public official into making it his home.
in the series, Otto corners the mass murdering villain Massacre; a
villain with no powers but also with no apparent capacity for
emotion. After Massacre casually lives up to his name dozens of
times, Otto incapacitates him and gets ahold of his gun. Massacre
suddenly feels afraid, and in doing so is amazed he is capable of
such an emotion. The Ghost Parker – not yet defeated at this point
– tries to stop Otto from killing Massacre. But seeing Massacre’s
fear and the resulting tears of joy, Otto says, “This changes
nothing. You are who you are. The killer will always be hiding inside
you. There is only one solution here.” And he murders Massacre,
shooting him point blank.
he says what he says to Massacre, it feels distinctly like Otto’s
talking about himself. But how could there be “only one solution”
when Otto is claiming to have solved the problem of his own life by
usurping Parker’s and trying to be a better hero? How could he say
this unless he knows that he’s living a lie inside a lie?
tragedy of Superior Spider-Man is
that, from start to finish, Otto Octavius is a prisoner. He’s a
prisoner of his lies, a prisoner of the role he’s usurped, and a prisoner
of his own identity. Even though he shows us good qualities, even
though he genuinely cares for people like Aunt May and Anna Marconi,
Otto can’t be the hero and his failure really has nothing to do with
morality or weakness of character. Otto is the villain because Otto
is the villain. He does not know how to operate differently. He is a
prisoner of himself, he knows it, but he keeps going to the
inevitable crushing end.
he’s not the only one.
the most truly surprising and clever elements of Superior
Spider-Man is just how valid
that “superior” can seem at times. Not in terms of Otto’s more
brutal style, we all expected that. But particularly in the beginning
of Superior Spider-Man,
Otto seems not only able to handle the hero/real-life balance better
than Peter ever could, but he’s actually able to act as Spider-Man
much more sanely than Peter in spite of his obvious insanity. He
knows things Peter doesn’t. He knows that the world does not revolve
around him and he can’t fix everything. When Otto races across the
city to save MJ from the Vulture’s goons, Ghost Parker goes with him.
Otto spots a mugger accosting a man in an alley, and while Ghost
Parker characteristically invisibly urges Otto to stop the mugger,
Otto pushes on saying “A petty crime at best. I must focus on the
task at hand!” In spite of Ghost Parker’s constant urgings,
Superior Spider-Man will contact the fire department about blazes or
the NYPD about crimes rather than necessarily tackling them himself.
Even in the middle of the manhunt for Massacre, Otto makes time for a
dinner with Anna Marconi while Ghost Parker screams at him, “Go on
patrol you idiot! Chase down leads! Do something! Nothing’s more
important than this! Nothing!”
in other words, demands time for the personal life that Peter so
quickly tosses aside for the sake of dropkicking another mugger. He
knows he can’t save everyone. He knows he doesn’t need to. It is not
what we expect from the Hollywood or comic book kind of heroism when
heroes save – or at least try to save – every last person, puppy,
and twig, but Otto’s approach initally is closer to sanity than
anything from Peter’s own web swinging.
Superior Spider-Man first
came out, I saw it as something of a conceptual spawn of Kraven’s
Last Hunt: the classic JM
DeMatteis/Mike Zeck crossover in which Kraven the Hunter not only
shoots Spider-Man and buries him in a grave, but takes his costume
and briefly acts as Spider-Man in order to prove that he can be
better than his prey. Now, I see it as more of a child of Alan Moore
and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke.
I don’t guess it was Dan Slott’s intention, what Doc Ock’s hostile
takeover of Peter Parker’s life most successfully exposes – like
the Joker’s flashlight punchline at the end of The Killing
Joke – is the mutual, endless,
and futile insanity of the super-hero and the super-villain. Peter
Parker’s life is so insane that even Doctor Octopus can run Parker’s life better than Parker can. Doctor Octopus is so insane
that even when he finally defeats Spider-Man in every possible way,
it isn’t enough, it’s never enough. Both are not only prisoners in
their roles, they embrace their prisons. They demand their prisons.
that quote that’s attributed to so many different people (Mark Twain,
Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein) that I may as well say it was Stephen
Wright. Or even me. The quote about the definition of insanity being
doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
That’s why addiction is insane. Because you keep doing the same thing
you know is killing you, that you know will never produce the result
you want, from which you eventually don’t even take even the most temporary
pleasure. Otto describes something like it as early as the
second issue of Superior Spider-Man.
When he finally breaks things off with MJ, he says, “Because the
two of us—together—it’s insane. I can do the math. You love me as
Peter and Spider-Man. But you can’t be with me because I’m Peter and
Spider-Man. It’s a recursive loiop. An equation that can never be
go the good guy and the bad guy. Round and round and round. And the
octopus gets no sleep tonight.
New Avengers #1 by Al Ewing, Gerardo Sandoval, and
Dono Sanchez Almara
Sandoval and Almara’s art here is pretty appealing, with a nice blend of traditional superhero art and Manga influences. I have real issues with this comic, but none of that has a thing to do with the art.
Ewing’s script is terrible for quite a few reasons. First off, there’s the characters. None of them are really distinguished from one another, aside from Squirrel Girl. White Tiger’s sole characterization is that she’s hitting on Power Man, despite him not being interested. Songbird, Wiccan, and Hulking are all more interesting than they’re portrayed as being here. Then there’s the odd set-up of this book, where the Avengers are operating out of AIM Island. This is, in a way, the opposite complaint I had about Invincible Iron Man #1, where everything felt like a retread. Here, Ewing does nothing to acclimate the reader into an odd status quo, despite this in theory being a big jumping-on point for new readers after Marvel’s Crisis. Finally, there’s the plot. After all the inter-dimensional shenanigans of Hickman’s Secret Wars, does anyone want more of that? The one positive I can say here is that I’m thrilled to see Songbird finally join the Avengers after Busiek foreshadowing it 17 years ago in Avengers Forever.
Invincible Iron Man #2-3 by Brian Michael Bendis,
David Marquez, and Justin Ponsor
These are much better than the bland first issue. Doom is not a character I’d expect to be in Bendis’s wheelhouse, but he made it work in Mighty Avengers years ago and does so again here. Aside from the overly abbreviated and too-vague examination of Stark’s past with Madame Masque, these issues are breezy fun for Bendis fans.
Howard the Duck #1 by Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones, and
Joe Rivera & Chris Hastings, Danilo Beyruth, and Tamara Bonvillain
Howard picks up pretty much right where it left off before Secret Wars, but provides ample background material for anyone jumping on—Howard’s a PI, he has a new shape-shifting gal Friday, and Aunt May is working for him part time. Plus, he’s kind of depressed and wants to go home, which leads into a fight with the Wizard and Titania. I cannot imagine anyone jumping on here having an issue following what’s going on. Zdarsky’s writing on Howard continues to be stronger than Jughead, which feels muted and less funny by comparison. Quinones, meanwhile, remains one of the best-kept secrets in comics; why he isn’t a bigger star is a mystery. His Howard isn’t Gene Colan’s Howard, but it works amazingly well. Howard is completely believable within Quinones’s milieu, and there’s this odd, almost Peter Lorre-ish touch around Howard’s eyes that really gives off the world-weary vibe Zdarsky’s script is going for. If not for the book up next, I’d be tempted to call this the best book Marvel’s publishing today.
Before the next title though, I suppose I should touch on the much-hyped Gwenpool back-up. Well, it exists. Normally, I’m a fan of Chris Hastings; Dr. McNinja and Fear Itself: Deadpool are both hilarious comics. Based on this first installment, Gwenpool seems to be little more than Deadpool’s fourth-wall breaking elements ramped up to eleven. It’s a little amusing, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a real reason for this character to exist right now other than as a cash grab. Danilo Beyruth’s pencils are mostly OK, and recall a budding Farel Dalrymple. Unfortunately, the art serves as an example of how hard it can be to integrate an alien presence like Howard into a comic, as Beyruth’s take is less successful than Quinones’s.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 by Ryan North, Erica
Henderson, Joe Morris, and Rico Renzi
This comic opens with a parody of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s famous opening to All Star Superman, where they turn Superman’s origin into almost a minimalist poem, “Doomed planet./Desperate Scientists./Last hope./Kindly couple.” North and Henderson similarly catch the reader up, “Partially squirrel blood./Talks to rodents./Powers of a squirrel.” It does not have quite the same ring to it, but it’s a lovely re-introduction. Unlike Howard, Squirrel Girl does not just pick up where it left off pre-Secret Wars. Time has passed, and our titular heroine is starting her second semester in a new off-campus apartment. It serves as an excuse for North and Henderson to debut SG’s mother, Maureen Green, who in turn revises her daughter’s origin to be, “medically and legally distinct from being a mutant, and I can never take this back” which is hilarious from both a metatextual standpoint of the issues with film rights for Marvel characters, and a nice callback to Dan Slott’s GLX-Mas special, where the Watcher saw Squirrel Girl defeat absolutely the real versions of Marvel’s most powerful villains.
Essentially, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is exactly what I want from most Marvel comics; it is truly all ages and for all sorts of fans. Obsessives like me will appreciate the references to older comics and the main plot, where Squirrel Girl takes an unusual route to defeat what looks like a menacing Hydra cyborg, is perfect for younger fans and the new generation making the likes of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel such a hit. When the news leaked out that the pre-Secret Wars Squirrel Girl was being forced into oddly sized trades, I was worried it wouldn’t be coming back for the relaunch. I’m thrilled that my fears proved unfounded and that the book picked up right where it left off.
Carnage #1 by Gerry Conway, Mike Perkins, and Andy
Apparently, Conway quietly returned to the Spider-Man franchise a couple years ago and worked extensively on Spider-Verse. Still, it’s a surprise to see him writing this book. Conway’s 1991 exit from Spectacular Spider-Man occurred just before the franchise became all-Symbiotes all the time. I picked this book up incredulous about its prospects as an ongoing series, and I remain that way. The issue is mainly set-up to get Cassaday and a team of soldiers (including John Jameson and former Venom Eddie Brock) into an abandoned mine for Cassaday to pick off the non-named characters one-by-one. Conway’s execution of all this is fine, but it still feels more like a limited series than an ongoing. Perkins and Troy’s art is functional; though I wish they found a way to make the symbiotes feel more disruptive to the setting. This book is the opposite of Howard the Duck, where Howard needs to blend into the Marvel Universe. Carnage is primarily a gritty action book, except for the one fantastic sci-fi element, but Perkins and Troy fail to make it feel fantastic.
Spider-Woman #1 by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez,
and Alvaro Lopez
This a pretty good comic overall. Hopeless does an excellent job conveying Jessica Drew’s frustration with being on maternity leave and shows a range of reactions to her pregnancy among the superhero community. Still, there’s little here beyond the basic solicitation pitch for the series; Hopeless pretty much just establishes the idea that Drew is now pregnant and that the identity of the father is mystery. That’s fine, but it doesn’t really hook the reader to pick up a second issue. The art by Rodriguez and Lopez falls squarely into the realm of contemporary superhero art aiming for neither gritty realism (Mike Perkins) nor cartoony (Erica Henderson), and it perfectly fits the tone, except for one minor hiccup. If not for the recap page, I’d have no clue that the person helping Drew train the new Porcupine is Ben Urich; Rodriguez’s version looks way too young for the character.
Extraordinary X-Men #1-2 by Jeff Lemire, Humberto
Ramos, Victor Olazaba, and Edgar Delgado
Well, that was wholly inaccessible. I probably sound like a broken record about this with some Marvel books, but how can you make your big debut X-book coming out of Secret Wars so new-reader unfriendly? People love to joke about ‘90s X-Men comics being a mess of crossovers and unresolved plots, but at least two of the protagonists weren’t time displaced from alternate realities (only one of which was mentioned). If you don’t know what the Inhumans and Terrigen Mists are you’ll be completely lost, and that’s to say nothing of little throwaway things like Limbo. That’s without the bold new direction for the X-books apparently being a regurgitation of the post-House of M status, which Marvel undid three years ago. Jeff Lemire’s done a lot of good work elsewhere, so it feels safe to chalk this up to editorial.
– Joe Gualtieri
1. Batman Always Wins.
2. Although definitely not the most famous, longest, or even necessarily the “best”, my favourite run will always be the one in the early to mid ‘90s by Doug Moench and Kelley Jones. When not interrupted by catastrophic life-changing “everything will never be the same events,” their run focused on some of the weird and supernatural aspects around Batman. While not an outright horror title, they did touch the darker corners of the DCU, even managing to pull of a “kind of” crossover with Vertigo’s Swamp Thing at the time. It also was decidedly fun.
3. Keeping with this theme, I always thought that Batman stories tended to work best when either touching upon the horror/supernatural or straight-out mystery/detective genres. Stories that pay homage to his pulp inspirations always seem to pop better for me.
4. I really liked what Grant Morrison was trying to do with Batman and the story he was trying to tell. It really seemed to come together with Batman & Robin but I still feel interruptions and then a linewide reboot/relaunch/reshuffling really messed up the pacing, timing, and endgame.
5. Legends of the Dark Knight is probably my favourite Batman series. Just so many good stories including “Shaman”, “Masks”, “The Sleeping”, “Prey”, and “Gothic” were told in that series.
As we continue our tribute to Alan Moore during his birthday month, this week we asked our QT contributors to name their favorite original Alan Moore character, other than John Constantine. Constantine was excluded from consideration to try and throw a spotlight on other, lesser known Moore originals.
I think one of the main problems with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s
Watchmen may be that, depending on which character you focus in on, you
come away with different and possibly misguided lessons of the book.
Focus too much on Dr. Manhattan and you can lose touch with the humanity of the world. Spend too much time on the Comedian and everything becomes a tragic joke. Ozymandias could make you think everything that is horrible and ugly in the world may also be strangely transformative. (Okay, maybe that last lesson isn’t so misguided and more time and ink should be spent on the possible moral repercussions of Ozymandias’s actions.) The biggest lessons though that we seem to have learned from Watchmen are Rorschach’s violent lessons, and even there we focused too much on the means rather than the causes or the questions.
Among these gods and madmen sits the simple people, Dan Drieberg and Laurie Juspeczyk. Here are the people who aren’t touched by a god in any type of way. They’re not super powerful or deluded with a moral superiority that most of the so-called “heroes” of the story possess. Sure, they are superheroes in a very basic way, but the sense that Moore and Gibbons build around them is they were superheroes once upon a time like some of us were punks, stoners or goths. It was something that they once did and then they grew up. For the longest time in my readings of Watchmen, they were also the most unexciting characters of the book. They were what I had to wade through to get to Mars or a prison break or an arctic Xanadu. They were the distraction from the misidentified coolness of Rorschach.
But as I’ve gotten older, Watchmen has become Dan’s story and that’s a bit of why the book gets more absurd as I get older but it also gets more humane. Now in ways that I couldn’t before, I see Watchmen as a story about people trying to find their way through a crazy world. It’s the silliness of the plot and Ozymandias’s almost mustache-twirling machinations that continually compound the unreality of Watchmen. The EC Comics dystopian vibe is practically infantile in 2015 as we watch the nightly news and see these type of actions performed on a regular basis in the name of religion.
Watchmen is a comic filled with madmen, vigilantes and terrorists. And yet within that storm of absurdity rests two of Alan Moore’s most human characters and maybe even Laurie’s backstory stretches the boundaries of that thought too far. But in Dan, Moore builds a character who is searching for some kind of certainty in this uncertain world. The memorable image of him isn’t an action shot or even anything related to the threats that are facing the heroes of this world. The most memorable image is after Rorschach accuses him of quitting, Dan sitting alone in his basement, staring at the Comedian’s bloodstained smiley face button as his unused costume hangs in a locker just a foot away from him. It’s easy to read in that moment that Dan is a loser, out of touch with the superhero he should be.
Dan’s story is so much more than that. He’s the everyman of the comic. It’s not a sexy part but it is an integral part to it. Dan is the solid rock that the story is built on. He doesn’t need an origin story like everyone else gets because it’s important that he doesn’t have much of a story. He doesn’t have a horrible childhood or a traumatic accident that forever alters his destiny. He doesn’t even have a point of view other than he wants to do what is right and good. There’s no moment when an owl flew into his study and he said, “I shall become like an owl.” He just likes birds and thought he could do some good as one of these superheroes.
One of the biggest problems with Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie is that as he tried to remain so faithful to the text, he completely misinterpreted Dan Drieberg. The way that Moore and GIbbons portray him is slightly schlubby. He’s let himself go a bit since his crime fighting days. When he and Laurie get attacked in an alley, his can still fight but he’s terribly winded at the end because he’s out of shape. In the movie, as soon as he puts on his costume he’s back in fighting shape, fighting and moving more like Batman than the Dan in the comics ever did. The Dan of the comics isn’t a superhero. He was one a long time ago but now he’s just trying to figure out his place in a mad world.
And that’s what my 30 year old reading of Watchmen is. How I read it in 1986 is very different than how I’ll read it in 2016. Back then, Dan was the lamest character of the book. He didn’t do anything cool. But now it’s the rest of the book that’s kind of dumb in a comic booky way but in Dan I find a character who looks at the world as confused and unsure as I am. He may find that he feels alive only when he’s looking for a thrill and excitement but that’s a fleeting memory of his own immaturity. That excitement is as fleeting as the safety any of us may feel in the world today. Even at the end of the world, he lives in a moment of Nostalgia that runs metaphorically throughout the book.
Joe Gualtieri: I made this question even harder for myself by refusing to consider anyone from Watchmen (aside from Veidt, they’re too similar to the Charlton originals) or From Hell (since most of the characters are based on real people). Evey Hammond and V from V for Vendetta are probably Moore’s best original characters with my self-imposed restrictions, but favorite? There are several characters from Top 10 who are just amazing.
Detective Synaethesia Jackson is amazing. As her name states, she possesses synesthesia, but in Top 10, rather than being a hindrance, it gives her a near-supernatural ability to solve cases. I could read a whole series about her. Unfortunately, the only times Moore lets the reader behind her professional façade is to discusses her love life, first her former involvement with Smax and then to reveal her current crush on her married partner. So she’s out.
Joe Pi only appears in two issues of Top 10, but makes a tremendous impression. The scene were Pi convinces the anti-robot Shockheaded Pete that he is sexually molesting Pi’s vending machine cousin might be the funniest scene Moore’s ever written. While Pete is the worst about it, most of the cast displays some level of anti-robot prejudice, particularly in terms of how they expect him to react to human emotions, yet at every turn he impresses with how empathetic he apparently is. In terms of actual police work, Pi comes across as hyper-competent and able to do the job of both an officer, a forensic pathologist, and even has his own built-in body camera. The result of this, however, is that Joe Pi actually seems to prove Shockheaded Pete correct—a precinct of nothing but Joe Pis would be as good or better than the cast the reader grew to love over the ten issues prior to Pi showing up.
And then there’s the more sinister side of Joe Pi. One would hope that robot cops would be more honest and law-abiding than the worst of the real ones, but Joe Pi is not. The body camera and recording device I mentioned earlier? There is nothing prohibiting him from shutting them off whenever he wants. The series presents his decision to do so when a fellow offer talks about killing a pedophile is presented as one of those moments of surprising empathy, but it is quite disturbing, if thought about. And then Pi proceeds to talk that same pedophile into committing suicide, rather than going to trial and getting released after a few years. Moore never shied away from displaying the warts of his police cast in the issues prior to Pi’s arrival, but none of the street-level police do anything on the level Pi does, and it functionally darkens the series for the reader in a way similar to what happens to Swamp Thing in “The Anatomy Lesson.” That Moore was able to pack so much into the character in just two issues makes him my favorite original Moore character. Other than Constantine, of course.
Mike Sterling; So the thing about picking a favorite Alan Moore-created character is that he created a whole bunch of great characters for 2000 A.D.,
some serious (Halo Jones, Skizz) to the bizarrely peculiar (Abelard
Snazz), all of which I enjoyed, but my favorites may be D.R. and Quinch.
Being North America-bound as I am, I didn’t encounter this pair of extraterrestrial delinquents until they were reprinted stateside in the color 2000 A.D. comic book series in the 1980s. The scrawny, violent D.R. and his oversized stoic partner Quinch were introduced in a story that had them traveling through, and seriously interfering with, Earth’s history, and things went hilariously downhill from there in the subsequent all-too-short series of shorts that were to follow. Drafted into military service, becoming movie moguls, D.R. falling in love…wonderful set-ups for a great series of anarchic calamities, and it was all beautifully and expressively illustrated by Alan Davis.
It wasn’t until much later that I found out D.R. and Quinch may have been inspired by the similarly anti-social O.C. and Stiggs, who had appeared in National Lampoon. Despite this, I still have a soft spot, in my heart as well as in my head, for these alien troublemakers and their brief funnybook lives. Thanks to them, the phrase “Mind the oranges, Marlon!” will forever be fixed in my memories.
This week marked the birthday of Alan Moore, on November 18th. To celebrate the birth of The Magus, TWC will be
running themed Question Times for the rest of the month alongside a few
This week’s question – what do you think is Moore’s most neglected work?
Rob Vollmar: Talking about Alan Moore’s most neglected work is kind of like trying to identify people’s least favorite Beatles album, but for me, it’s got to be The Birth Caul. This spoken word piece, later adapted for comics by From Hell collaborator Eddie Campbell, strikes chords not often found in Moore’s other work and, not surprisingly, it hits them masterfully.
autobiographical, Moore uses the occasion of his mother’s death to superimpose
a map of his own life over that of the audience (and the reader) with just
enough universal themes to make it feel both intensely personal and profound on
a broader scale. Here, Moore keeps his occult themes (which dominate his other
spoken word pieces) beneath the surface but performs something of a magick
trick in the work itself by telling the story in reverse, beginning in the
middle age and looping backwards in each succeeding section until he arrives at
the beginning…which in this case is prior to conception. Though The Birth
Caul is a very human work, it’s also intellectually ambitious, using memoir
as a vehicle for exploring challenging ideas -
how language shapes perception, how geography dictates destiny, how the
tiniest causes can avalanche into the most devastating effects. The emotions in
this piece are so raw and, for my dollar, it puts all of the
look-I-spank-it-into-a-sock autobiographical comics of the 1990s Western
Hemisphere to utter shame. The recording catches moments where Moore is on the
absolute verge of tears and, man, it’s like watching Aslan die..
The Campbell adaptation is the perfect companion to the audio recording and helps to make the work more accessible by blending in visual components that bring a generational identity to some of the things that Moore is saying about his own life. Campbell produced the piece immediately after “The Dance of the Gull Catchers” (the epilog to From Hell) and the ten years he’d spent interpreting from inside of Moore’s words prior sing from every panel. Though rendered in black and white, Campbell throws in everything he’s got to capture the dizzying range of ideas from painted brush strokes to collage. I hold Campbell’s work in very high esteem and I’m pretty sure this is the most ambitious piece he ever attempted and possibly the most impressive of his career.
So, yeah, if you liked From
Hell and don’t mind having your guts torn out, by all means, read The
Birth Caul. It’s kind of a big deal. The CD features music from David J.
(Bauhaus, Love and Rockets) and frequent Moore collaborator Tim Perkins.
Unfortunately, it is often challenging to find and I don’t think it’s streaming
legally anywhere but the whole package is best consumed in tandem like an
old-school book and record set. The basic sum effect is a lot like what’s
offered in this incomplete video sequence bringing the two together.
David Allen Jones: Alan Moore’s most neglected work?
Well, while on a scale of “neglect” it doesn’t necessarily seem more ignored than early works like sadly unfinished Ballad of Halo Jones or more recent ones like his Lovecraft homage Providence, the series I have in mind has not really been examined as much as I would have hoped; it seemed to be written from a very personal point of view and was staggering in the scope of its ambitions, and would seem to provide endless fodder for discussion and speculation. Perhaps it’s because of the lesser regard that Mr. Moore seems to be held in among readers of a certain age and younger; his public behavior over the last ten years, generally speaking, has been erratic at best and offputting at worst. He has seemed to withdraw and lay low for generous stretches of time, only sporadically presenting new works that sell to a select few acolytes and not a wide audience. The name Alan Moore now perhaps suggests “’90s writer of Watchmen and V for Vendetta” and little else for today’s comics buyers.
The series I’m thinking of? The America’s Best Comics series Promethea.
Initially presented as a Wonder Woman pastiche and tricked out with a lot of gentle superhero satire, this series evolved into far, far more; it turned into an examination of Moore’s (mostly) occult beliefs about the nature of fantasy vs. reality, magic(k) and religion, old reliable good vs. evil, life/death, sexuality and male/female gender roles…a huge cornucopia of concepts and notions and ideas that impressed jaded old non-believer me with the sheer imagination involved in the way he presented his convictions. While I cant say there weren’t times when it seemed that Moore was disappearing right up his magickal arse in the course of the narrative, he usually managed to bring it home in a satisfactory fashion. Of course, the remarkably detailed, equally imaginative and nuanced art by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray, often in styles cleverly imitating well-known fine and genre artists, helped him visualize his concepts…but the mind of Moore was the driving wheel. It wasn’t even my favorite ABC series; that would be Top 10…but Promethea was right up there with Watchmen, Swamp Thing, and V in my estimation and I’m a little disappointed that it’s rarely mentioned in the comics discussions I see online and in print. Perhaps it was too sprawling, perhaps many aren’t comfortable with the questions it raised…but I think the best examination of this series has yet to be written.
Mike Sterling: Now, it’s hard to describe this particular Alan Moore work as being particularly “neglected” as such, as it was reprinted, but we’re approaching nearly thirty years since the books in question were in print, so I think it’s safe to refer to these as being among those Moore works that have been left behind. I’m talking about, of course, Maxwell The Magic Cat.
This was a series of four black and white staplebound books, measuring 8 ¼ by 11 inches, reprinting Alan Moore’s comic strip from The Northants Post. The strip ran about seven years, written and drawn by Moore under the homophonic pseudonym “Jill de Ray” (after a particularly nasty serial killer).
A lot of the strips were metatextual examinations of the very idea of a comic strip and its format, but the strip ran the gamut from simple sight gags, to real groaners of puns, to political humor, to outright absurdity (such a favorite sequence of mine, where a snake carries on a torrid affair with Maxwell’s tail). Occasionally…well, mostly…Moore’s artistic reach exceeded his grasp, but his gag-writing is solid and usually clever, and the general roughness of the art is just part of the charm. If the drawing were more polished, it just wouldn’t be Maxwell the Magic Cat.
Now, I’d originally bought volumes 1 through 3 as they were released, in the mid ’80s. I never saw volume 4 on the shelf, and at the time I just assumed it never came out. Eventually, I discovered that volume 4 had been released, but for some reason it appeared to have limited distribution. I don’t know if it actually did, or if it was just hard to find in my neck of the woods, or what the deal was, but several years of casual eBay and Amazon investigations seems to bear out my belief that the fourth book is the rarest of the volumes.
Luckily, a few years back at my previous place of employment a collection arrived that contained the Complete Maxwell the Magic Cat Set of Volumes One Through Four plus a protective folder, so at last my collection was complete. Given that even the initial three volumes weren’t so easy to find when they were brand new, all four are certainly obscure items in Moore’s bibliography nearly three decades on, and deserving of some sort of reissue. Maybe not Moore’s most important, ground-breaking, or significant work, but certainly a lot more laughs than The Killing Joke.
[APOLOGIA: this is a reworked post from my regular site…please forgive me if this bit of business is familiar to you.]
Joe Gualtieri: My pick for Moore’s most neglected work is a comic he did for Eclipse. No, not that one. Unlike Miracleman, Brought to Light: Shadowplay—the Secret Team is not currently in print. Commonly just known as Brought to Light, that book is actually a 60 page compilation and flipbook. One side consists of Flashpoint—the La Penca Bombing, which is an unvarnished examination of a press conference bombing with CIA involvement by Joyce Brabner and Thomas Yeates. It is a fine example of comics journalism, but it pales in comparison to Shadowplay.
Written by Moore and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, Shadowplay is arguably the second most important comic of Moore’s career. By 1989, he was the biggest thing in comics, all of his projects were ending or about to, his feud with DC would see Twilight fall apart. The initial chapters of From Hell would also appear this year, in the Taboo anthology, making Shadowplay the fulcrum of the switch from one phase of Moore’s career into the next.
As a story, Shadowplay is quite straightforward. The comic is told solidly from the reader’s point of the view, and the reader goes on a journey into the heart of darkness to meet the anthropomorphized embodiment of the CIA, which is naturally a humanoid eagle. The eagle details the messy, sordid history of the CIA, all the killings, drug-dealing, and other questionable acts. What makes Shadowplay so remarkable is how despite mainly being a 30 page info dump, it is never, ever boring. Moore’s voice for the eagle is remarkable, a perfect example of the arrogant, privileged thinking that led to the horrors he recounts as if they were rarely anything other than good times (so long as there was not a Democratic president). Sienkiewicz’s work here isn’t as innovative as the roughly contemporary Stray Toasters, but his versatility is perfect for the comic, as he blends the surrealism of the eagle narrator with many different styles of cartooning to depict the CIA’s various atrocities, ranging from abstract cartooning to infographics. The latter provided one of the more lasting legacies of the work. On page five, there is a chilling image of the eagle, wearing sunglasses and a bathing suit, atop a floating pool cushion. The pool is filled with blood, as the eagle explains, “Average body holds a gallon. Big swimming pools hold 20,000 gallons, so imagine a pool filled with blood.” Throughout the rest of the story, Moore and Sienkiewicz use the image as a motif to show how many people are killed in different CIA programs. Stanley Donwood credits the swimming pool of blood with inspiring part of the album artwork in Radiohead’s Kid A.
Shadowplay concludes with the reader running away from the eagle, outstretching a hand, and disappearing into the mist. Rereading it now, the sequence foreshadows the fantastic sequences in From Hell where Gull travels through time, hand similarly outstretched, connecting the major completed Moore work of the period back to its beginning. I say major completed Moore work, because Moore and Sienkiewicz would collaborate again on Big Numbers, and well, if you don’t know the story behind that, stay tuned.
Writers: James Tynion IV and Ming Doyle (art in #3)
Artists: Riley Rossmo, Vanessa del Rey (#3-4), Chris Visions (#4)
Colors: iVan Plascencia, Lee Loughridge (#3 & 4)
Letters: Tom Napolitano
liked the New 52 CONSTANTINE book. Yeah, I was the one. Was it the best
version of John? Well, which one are you talking about? Alan Moore’s
mysterious interloper? Warren Ellis’s solemn observer? Brian Azzarello’s
con man? Peter Milligan’s old married mage? I’ve got all of the trade
paperbacks – there are at least a dozen variations of John. The
CONSTANTINE book feels like a HELLBLAZER – well, at least one of them.
The new book does too.
James Tynion IV and Ming Doyle are giving us the sarcastic Wit that seems two steps ahead but might have actually missed a key detail. He’s prepared for things but can take his lumps when necessary. That’s the key HELLBLAZER connection for me. Additionally, they have reintroduced a level of sexual maturity to the book that we haven’t seen in a long time. John has often been seen as a character with fluid and diverse sexual habits and in a few short issues, they have given John a few different options.
The first issue reestablishes John’s world, where he lives and how reacts to the environment around him. There’s a fantastic scene where John travels to a local club and we see the secret, otherworldly depths. Artist Riley Rossmo stretches the horizontal panels across a two-page spread and uses a stacked tier layout to express the spheres of Hell. Each is unique and well-defined.
This is some of the best art I’ve seen from Rossmo. He has worked in a variety of styles and techniques. Here, he uses his unique style with detail and zipatone to give the figures depth. Ming Doyle pitched in on some flashback pages, giving the scenes a classic, aged look. It’s an ambiguous time period but it’s clearly not ‘now.’ HIT’s Vanessa del Rey does the ‘current’ pages, fleshing out John’s well-loved counterpart, Georgiana Snow. DEAD LETTERS’ Chris Visions replaces Doyle on flashbacks for issue 4. It’s fantastic work. DEAD LETTERS is filled with muddy colors and clunky digital letters that muddle Visions’ art. Here, he’s assisted by a higher quality of colorist and letterer.
The majority of the color art is by Ivan Plascencia who uses bright pastels and unpolluted colors to give the book a unique feel for a John Constantine project. Lots of pinks and blues take the place of the usual browns and oranges. The soft hued colors give the scenes and airy, ethereal look, even when the material is on the heavier side.
Tom Napolitano uses a striking “house” font for the book. It’s not flashy but it’s distinctive and adds a level of personality to the book.
To paraphrase Stan Lee, this is a novel-length column adventure, True Believers, as I’m trying to ramp up production and get to a place where I’m covering a full month’s worth of ‘60s Marvel issues in each column. We had a few January 1963 stragglers, so we’ll get to those as well as all of February. I suppose I could split it up again, but March 1963 is a very special month and I really want to do it justice next week. So here we go.
Last time we saw Loki, Thor had sent him to Asgard, where he would come face to face with Odin. Odin sentences Loki to never leave Asgard. But you can’t keep the God of Mischief down, and so in Journey into Mystery #88 he disguises himself as a snake and sneaks past the eagle-eyed Heimdall on the Rainbow Bridge. We next see him at Donald Blake’s office, disguised as an old man and hypnotizing Jane Foster before seeing Blake, who by this point should know not to trust anyone in a green suit.
Loki has him change into Thor and throw his hammer, then creates the illusion that Jane is in danger, and, unable to get his hammer back within 60 seconds, he reverts to Blake again, and Loki puts a force field over the hammer. Loki then goes on a mayhem spree both silly and chilling – cars and buildings turning to candy and ice cream, while humans become blank white outlines of themselves. The world slowly starts to learn of, and believe in, Loki’s existence, and Loki for his part makes no demands, asks no ransom. He even spoils a secret Russian atomic bomb attack on the U.S. for unexplained reasons that probably boil down to his want that any destruction start with him alone.
Don Blake finally gets an idea, and Loki learns from the newspaper that Thor has vowed to defeat Loki within the week. A nervous Loki goes to check on the hammer and finds Thor. Loki falls for the ruse (it’s not Thor but a plastic dummy) and removes the force field, giving Blake time to grab the hammer and change for real. To escape, Loki turns into a pigeon among many in the park, but Thor again outwits him, throwing a bag of peanuts that real pigeons would find irresistible, separating Loki from the other pigeons and capturing him to return to Asgard. Not a terrible issue, but it feels like the team doesn’t quite have a handle on Loki yet – is he an evil mastermind or annoying prankster? Does he want to have fun or really kill Thor? Can he come up with a complete plan or just wing it and see what happens?
Journey into Mystery #89 sure seems to be winging it, sporting a very generic cover, just Thor standing with a caption saying he’s going to battle the forces of evil. Probably an inventory job? We then get another rote recap of how Thor got his power and the continuing lack of romance between Donald Blake and Thor-obsessed Jane Foster, with the addition of her fantasizing about being his mate, polishing his hammer, ironing his cloak, and trimming his hair down to 1963 American male standards. It’s dull and silly, and then we’re introduced to the issue’s villain, one Thug Thatcher, the mob leader (was Lee afraid of the Italian Anti-Defamation League or something? Thatcher?), a fiend so low he was caught selling sub-standard steel! A real Carlos Marcello, this one.
Thatcher’s gang helps him escape his prison sentence, and two of Thug’s thugs enter Blake’s medical office and take him and Jane hostage, as they need medical help for Thatcher’s gunshot wound. Blake does his job, which means he has to now be killed so he doesn’t talk. Blake can’t get to his cane, so he uses the part of his brain that belongs to Thor (or something) and sends a distress call to Odin, who creates a force wave that makes one of the goons drop the cane for Blake to pick up, then changing into Thor.
There’s kind of a fun chase where Thor flings his hammer, knocking down a row of roadside trees that fall and trap the getaway car. Thatcher is still on the loose, and somehow recalls the gossip that Thor and Blake are always seen in close proximity to each other, so he and his gal go to Blake’s office, where Jane is still tied up. Why they want to go where Thor is more likely to find them, I couldn’t tell you. For the sake of Jane’s safety, Thor relinquishes his hammer, but before the 60 seconds are up, he uses his “super developed vocal cords” to throw his voice and make Thatcher believe the cops have him surrounded, giving Thor a moment to retrieve his hammer and postpone the era of Thug Life from happening for a few decades. Thug’s not quite captured yet, though: he abandons and even shoots at his gal in his attempt to escape, climbing up one of his unfinished buildings. Thor uses lightning to weaken a girder, and Thug falls into his arms. Being a loving Norse god, he asks Odin to remove the girl’s memory of Thug, so she can live her life without his destructive influence. Whatta god! Aside from that nice touch at the end, the issue, like Thug’s steel, is sub-standard, and it’s not a great sign that the creative team keep coming up with new powers for their heroes whenever it’s convenient. Super-Ventriloquism sounds like something more suited to a ‘50s issue of Superman.
Strange Tales #104 introduces one of the all-time loser villains, Paste Pot Pete (who nonetheless shows up a lot over the years, eventually getting a new name and costume as The Trapster), a guy who Kirby designs with a blowsy green jumpsuit, baby blue Captain America gloves, and a big purple beret. His gimmick is a gun that shoots glue, which he uses to rob banks without really hurting anyone. As we saw in Fantastic Four #9, which introduced us to Namor’s electric eel and radar powers, we’re in the Lee/Kirby make-shit-up-as-we-go-because-no one-will-read-this-again phase, so here we learn that Human Torch can track people by their heat waves. So, one successful bank robbery down, you expect Pete to elevate to, like, the Cadbury Chocolate Diamond or something, but no, he’s going to rob a military base and steal their new missile to sell to the Reds, because of course he is. Being a criminal in the Marvel Universe in this era means you’re either a Communist or willing to sell out your country to them.
Pete barely arrives in time to glue the missile as it takes off, which seems like a poor plan (how do you get anywhere with a truck with a thirty foot glue pole and missile hanging out of the back?). Torch follows, throwing fireballs at the tires, but Pete has great reflexes, not avoiding them, but instead doing some crazy thing gluing planks to make a bridge over a trap Torch makes. Torch’s flame wears off, and Pete glues him to the missile, deciding to set it off rather than sell it to the Russians, but the heat of the missile revives Torch’s powers, so he carefully extricates himself with one hot finger before he can fully flame on. Torch comes back hard, melting the truck, and the resourceful Pete barely escapes, losing both the missile and the bank loot. Despite his dumb name and costume, Paste Pot Pete is arguably more impressive in his debut than Doctor Doom.
Strange Tales #105 makes me think, How can I miss The Wizard if he won’t go away? Stan Lee advises us to all settle back and get a tight grip on ourselves (way ahead of you, pal!), and we catch up with Wiz easing on down the prison yard, planning his escape and revenge. Good behavior gets him a choice assignment at the prison hospital, where he has access to chemicals, creating a serum to melt through his cell wall (nice going, Warden!). When Human Torch learns of the escape, he goes looking for Wizard, leaving a flame facsimile of himself to fool sister Sue (add “dummies” to the list of Lee/Kirby tropes being dangerously overused, along with knockout gas and every villain being on the Russian payroll if they’re not aliens). When Sue figures it out (phony flame brothers don’t answer back, to quote Jim Morrison), she calls Mr. Fantastic, who tells her he and Thing won’t interfere and Johnny needs to stand on his own two feet, which, you know, is the whole point of him having a solo book, Sue.
Tales to Astonish #39 is another Lee/Kirby/Lieber take on a ‘50s Atomic horror movie, as radiation causes a lowly scarlet beetle to gain human intelligence and the ability to communicate with and manipulate all insects. It leads to Ant-Man getting overpowered and captured, while Scarlet Beetle uses his growth gas to become human-sized and plan an attack on humans involving stolen dynamite. Ant-Man, with the help of his ants, fights off beetles, grasshoppers and bees.
The climactic battle occurs in a toy store, which, while not as fun as the toy train fight in the Ant-Man film, is still pretty charming. And it’s one of the better endings the book has had so far, too, with Pym shrinking the beetle down to normal size and intelligence and letting him go, even if it brings down Ant-Man’s reputation a notch, with the police thinking he wasn’t around when they needed him most.
Fantastic Four #11 shows Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reveling in their success, the cover announcing it as an offbeat “collector’s item” issue and an opening sequence showing folks lining up to buy the latest Fantastic Four comic, kids dressing up like the team, and the F.F. themselves reading stacks of fan mail. We also get the first appearance of mailman Willie Lumpkin, here called “Lumpy” several times. We also get the Yancy Street Gang taking their first action against The Thing, sending him a package with a spring-loaded boxing glove in it.
Things get even more meta, in a weird way, as Reed starts to recall his college days with Ben, and Sue says, “Perhaps our fans would like to hear this, Reed,” as if the comic was some kind of reality show and their lives were lived on camera. We then see that both men were heroes in WWII, Ben as a Marine pilot and Reed working with the O.S.S. We’re reminded that Sue is still conflicted about her feelings for Reed and Sub-Mariner, but Reed is philosophical about it: he loves Sue without any doubt, but he knows life doesn’t always turn out as one expects.
We get another brief recap of the team’s origin – this time with Sue not being quite so manipulative in getting Ben to volunteer for the mission – and then Lee/Kirby seemingly (well, not seemingly – Lee admits it at the end of the story) address the fans who write in complaining about Invisible Girl’s supposed lack of contributions to the team. Both Reed and Ben are outraged at the letters, recalling how Sue was critical in their battles against the Skrulls and Doctor Doom. Ben becomes The Thing again, Reed’s latest serum lasting just a few minutes longer than the last, and the the three men surprising Sue with a birthday cake.
We then get the main story, introducing The Impossible Man, a bullet-headed green alien, an innocent who quickly commits a bank robbery for money to buy food, an act of naivete rather than malice. The F.F. find him, chowing down, and he tells them he comes from Poppup, a planet full of dangerous creatures, and that his people have the ability to change into almost anything. Impy doesn’t like the F.F. harassing his buzz, and realizes he’s maybe the most powerful creature on Earth and can pretty much do what he wants. Kirby has fun with kooky manifestations of his power, and it seems like it’s impossible to stop The Impossible Man with physical force or superpowers, so Mr. Fantastic uses psychology, telling everyone – law enforcement, broadcasters – to just ignore Impy, since all he really wants is attention. It works, and he leaves Earth out of boredom. Essentially, Impossible Man is Marvel’s version of Mr. Mxyzptlk, but without the gimmick that you can only stop him by making him say his name backwards. It’s a lighter issue (no fighting among teammates this time!), but pretty enjoyable.
Next week: The fledgling Marvel Universe kicks into another gear with Amazing Spider-Man #1 and the debut of Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, the usual Human Torch, Ant-Man and Thor stuff, and a double dose of Hulk in the last issue of Incredible Hulk (for a while) and Fantastic Four #12.
Inspired by the most recent Graphic Language podcast, in which Yan Basque and Alan David Doane discuss paradigm-shifting comics creators, we asked the TWC gang what comics creator they think has most changed the way people think about comics.
Tim Durkee: I feel that John Byrne’s Man Of Steel along with the Superman books that followed for several years made the shift. I was one who thought that it was foolish for any villain to try any criminal activity in Metropolis, or the world for that matter. Unless you had kryptonite, “How could you possibly beat Superman?” As a young reader during a show in Saratoga Springs, NY, I started a debate over “who would win, Superman or Galactus?“ During this period (’90-’91), I was the only one who thought Supes could take him. The others all said the same thing, "Before Crisis…maybe.” Superman was never a favorite of mine yet I found myself reading more and more after the reboot and this was before the revelation to Lois about his identity and his “death.” I also feel Byrne’s take made all who were and are involved in comic character creations take notice that if The Man Of Steel is more vulnerable to the threats he experiences, whoever they are working on is just as, if not more susceptible to danger and defeat. I have not read any Superman titles with the exception of All-Star in a very long time, so I am not sure if DC is still using the same origin and strengths and weakness after the original Crisis.
Roger Green: “Paradigm shift.” I have the Weird Al Yankovic song Mission Statement stuck in my mind. If I was forced to pick one person, and one title, it would be Todd McFarlane and his stint on the Spider-Man book, which he both wrote and illustrated.
That first issue sold 2.5 million copies, partially because there was a gold cover, and a silver cover and a regular cover, and other variants, for all I know. There were customers at Midnight Comics, where I had just started working part-time, who were buying ALL of them. And I didn’t know why.
Oh, I’d seen comic collector mania before when I worked at FantaCo in the 1980s, over the Claremont/Byrne X-Men, and the Miller Daredevil titles.This level of collector avarice, though, was different. Spider-Man #1 is considered by most people as the start of the comic speculation boom of the early 1990s that practically destroyed the industry.
The problem for me was two things, really: 1) I LOVED the character Spider-Man, and especially his alter ego, Peter Parker. 2) I did not like the McFarlane version of Spidey, but DESPISED his Peter Parker. It was the first title this Marvel zombie had dropped in years. It was unreadable. That McFarlane left the book because of “creative differences” in a year and a half was not surprising.
What took me unawares was that it brought him and his Image colleagues to new commercial heights. I read his Spawn #1, and realized why I hated his Spider-Man book so; it was of the same formula. I can’t get more specific, but whatever I disliked in the Marvel book was even more manifest in his Image title.
I have noted how difficult it is to figure out a comic book order. Image was particularly problematic with its special #0 issues. And it’s worse when titles are late, as the audience loses interest. Some of the Image boys, especially Rob Liefeld, were killing customer momentum. Ultimately all the wild speculative buying led to the Great Comic Book Bust.
John Belskis: This was a tough one. It’s hard to look past certain creators and what they contributed to change the way people look at comics, without mentioning names like Siegel and Shuster or Lee and Kirby. Also art styles like Steranko and Adams, should always get a nod. I’m taking a retailer perspective answering this though, and will take Frank Miller and Dark Knight Returns.
In and of itself, it was the first original story meant to cultivate the adult Batman fan. The art and story were dynamic, and the prestige format was formally exposed to the major market for the first time using a core character. More than just the book though, Dark Knight transformed how comics were to be written and reprinted. It was the first book to be marketed as a hardcover and trade paperback reprint, and really opened the publishers’ eyes as to how profitable the miniseries-into-trade-paperback could be. Within five years of the Dark Knight trade, many mainstream comics were being written in 4-6 issue story arcs to be reprinted as a self contained trade paperback reprint. This changed continuity in comics and ordering patterns of retailers, who could no longer rely on overstock to generate back issues sales. It also allowed creators to move freely from title to title much easier than in the continuity focused 1960s and 1970s.
Today everything produced by the big two has adopted this format, good or bad. To me, this was by far the biggest change to comics, as an adult market for core characters was advanced and the bookstore format in comic shops became much more prevalent. Obviously, Miller himself had little to do with the publisher changes, but that team was maybe the best group of talent ever on one mini series, and the result had a huge impact. Today, Dark Knight remains a staple in almost every comic store, as a testament to how powerful it was and remains.
Mike Sterling: I’m going for the easy answer on this one: Frank Miller, with The Dark Knight Returns. It’s hard to think of something in recent memory that’s had more impact than that mid-1980s work of Miller’s. Even Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, with which it is temporally and often critically paired, didn’t have the impact on the industry that Miller did with his work.
In general (and this is the impact fans of the medium prefer to remember) The Dark Knight Returns was the book repeatedly held up as the example of comics as a medium for adult storytelling. Well, yes, sure, there were plenty of examples of mature comics work prior and concurrent with this, but this one had Batman, so this one counts, man! …But despite my sarcasm, this is a mature, fully thought-out examination of the character from a perspective we hadn’t seen before, and one that rewards multiple rereads.
An unintended consequence of The Dark Knight Returns, resulting in a paradigm shift no one really expected, was the misreading/misunderstanding of the work, particularly by Miller’s artistic contemporaries. “The Dark Knight Returns is a popular adult comic because it’s so grim and gritty!” some folks apparently decided, and then away they went, flooding the market with dark, violent comics that mimicked the appearance of Miller’s story without the thought that had gone into it, and certainly without the parodic and self-critical underpinnings that everyone seems to forget when reconsidering what it was Miller had actually done with Batman.
Another aspect of the industry The Dark Knight Returns forever changed was packaging. Suddenly, the squarebound 48-page color comic book because the format of choice for the more upscale, the more (of course) “grim and gritty” short-form stories. Such was the impact that even DC’s crosstown competitor Marvel Comics briefly referred to their comics released in this fashion as “Dark Knight format” until someone realized “oh, wait, maybe we shouldn’t do that” and then started calling them “bookshelf format” or something similar. Sometimes the comics put into this format approached, kinda sorta, the mature-esque levels of Dark Knight (such as the mostly awful but it means well Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters), and sometimes they were just your standard issue, nothin’ special dopey superhero comics put in this format to soak readers for a few extra bucks (“New Universe” tie-ins like The War or The Pitt). The format stays with us today, but the once-implied “maturity” it promised has been stripped away long ago.
Despite the abuse the story and its format has undergone over the years, The Dark Knight Returns is still held up as the golden standard of “comics aren’t for kids anymore!” and doesn’t seem likely to be dethroned anytime soon. Miller forever changed the way people think about comics, even if those people don’t quite understand just what it is they’re thinking about.
Topics covered this week: Some new(ish) Marvel comics, the problem with superhero comics trying to deal with real-life issues, Jim Steranko’s Captain America vs Jack Kirby’s Captain America, what happens when a strong new creative team takes over a title mid-run, Jimmy Olsen as he appears in the new Supergirl TV series, and more.
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1. Mark Bagley. Whenever I think of Spider-Man, he’s drawn by Bagley.
2. I actually think that the Clone Saga was a good story…initially. It just got incredibly drawn out when it proved popular and it seemed like they didn’t know either where to go with it or how to end it.
3. His run on Amazing Spider-Man soured me on J. Michael Straczynski’s writing.
4. I hate the idea that Peter Parker always has to lose. Actually, this transcends Spider-Man. I hate the editorially mandated idea that heroes have to “suffer” in order to be interesting. While conflict creates interesting stories, if someone loses all the time or has Pyrrhic victories, it becomes incredibly depressing.
5. Peter David’s original run on Spider-Man 2099 with Rick Leonardi will probably always be my favourite incarnation of Spider-Man. Even if it isn’t Peter. And set in the future.