Trouble with Comics
It Takes A Villain #8: On Breathtaker and Why These Villain Comics Are Important

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.  

Capsule Reviews

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

TWC Question Time #24: Sports!

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.

Review: We Can Never Go Home

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 #7: Worse Ways to Live - Future Imperfect: Warzones!


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.  

TWC Question time #23: First Appearance

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.

TWC Question Time #22: Introductions

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 about.

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.

Men of Steel and Miracles: Scott Cederlund on Alan Moore’s Miracleman #1-16 and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow

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 #6: Forgotten Gold - Penguin: Pain and Prejudice

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

Batman’s 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.


For 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.

The 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.

Interlaced 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.

Kudranski’s 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.

Sometimes – 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.

Batman 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.

Batman’s 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.

I 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.

Just 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.

Just 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 real.

One 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.

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice is forgotten gold. Find it. Read it.

TWC Question Time #21: Cover Artists

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. .