Review: JLA: Ultramarine Corps trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

[This guest review comes from Adam J. Noble, a public librarian living in Eastern Canada. At Noble Stabbings!!, he is blogging his attempt to read all of the comic series Cerebus in 2009.]

JLA: Ultramarine Corps is a book of extremes. (Hey, why isn't that a book? "Extreme Justice?") This volume collects the initial three issues of the defunct Justice League of America anthology "JLA: Classified," which were written by legendary former JLA scripter Grant Morrison, and illustrated by Ed McGuinness, who, among his many other virtues, has a name that contains the name of my favourite alcoholic beverage. This volume also collects JLA: WildC.A.T.s about which I'll tell you straight-up, Slice: it sucks. I'm going to pretend JLA: WildC.A.T.s doesn't exist for the next few hundred words.

The "Ultramarine Corps" JLA storyline, so-named by somebody at DC's trade-paperback department, doesn`t really have that much to do with the titular team of superheroes, who previously appeared in Grant Morrison's mid-90s JLA run as government-sponsored foils for the Justice League. A better title for the collection might have been the cover copy on the first issue: "Where is the Justice League?" or even "JLA: Seven Soldiers."

JLA: Ultramarine Corps is probably not a great book to throw at somebody who has never read a DC comic before. For starters, if you don't know who the Ultramarine Corps are [Ed: and even if you do], you'll probably get whiplash reading the book`s first few pages, in which the Corps storm the floating city of Superbia to rid it of the invading telepathic ape Gorilla Grodd and his partner, Neh-buh-loh the Huntsman, formerly Nebula Man. "The JLA is AWOL," Corps member Warmaker One intones as the story begins. "Who needs the Justice League?" (Asking that question never works out well for anyone.) As awesome as it is to see The Knight (the British Batman wannabe) blow past monkey warriors on a motorcycle with the music of the Sex Pistols playing, once you notice the song that's playing is "Pretty Vacant" you can sort of see where Morrison is going with this. The Ultramarines are all style, no substance; all show, no go.

And because Grant Morrison`s at the helm, this book works on a few different but familiar levels. First off, the story (released in 2005) serves as a connecting bridge between some of the plot elements of Morrison`s 1990s JLA work and his subsequent efforts for DC. Neh-buh-loh and the parasitic Sheeda-men are here from Seven Soldiers of Victory, the infant universe of QWEWQ from All-Star Superman plays a major role, and, of course, the Knight and his young female sidekick, The Squire, from Morrison's Batman are present. When Batman receives a distress call from Squire and quips to his trusty butler "I'm opening up the sci-fi closet, Alfred. Don't tell my friends in the G.C.P.D. about this," Morrison has effectively laid out a concise manifesto for his coming Batman run.

But as readers of All-Star Superman know, any time the infant universe of QWEWQ gets mentioned, it's a red flag: Morrison has something profound to say about the actual real world and our need to create superheroes. To be sure, the story is about how the Ultramarine Corps are "pretty vacant" and cannot stack up heroically against the JLA. But that story's been told before -- in Kingdom Come, in "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way," in Warren Ellis' StormWatch -- the vigilantism vs. heroism theme is nothing new to superhero comics. So what's going on here?

Morrison's telling us what each team of heroes means to us. The Ultramarines are violent and militaristic, and after Superman and company save the day, Big Blue gives the Ultramarines an appropriate dressing down. The Justice League spends the first two-thirds of the book tracking down the super-serial-killer Black Death on Earth-Q (Batman laments: "They got lost saving somebody else's universe. Typical."). It's difficult to express here, but there is something about how all the scenes on QWEWQ are drawn in a 4-by-4 panel grid that is unbelievably claustrophobic, and when the League talk about our universe and its lack of superheroes being "unbelievable," "damaged," and "unhealthy" there is something so ineffably sad about it. It is like someone in our world describing a universe without color or light or love. For myself, at least, it brings to mind the final pages of Jimmy Corrigan -- Superman feels for us. Hence his decision to assign the Ultramarines to patrol QWEWQ and become its heroes and redeemers. Regrettably, as any reader of Seven Soldiers of Victory knows, the Ultramarines are doomed to fail.

As much as I enjoyed Morrison's recent apocalyptic meta-epic Final Crisis, JLA: Ultramarine Corps gets to the heart of that work's themes in a more concise, more uplifting, more energetic, and more poignant way. Namely, if superheroes didn't exist [which they don't] we would have to invent them [which we have]. And the superheroes know it.

In case I've lingered too long on the emotional/spiritual elements of this story, let me assure anyone who is considering reading this: it is also ass-kickingly awesome. It has The Squire (on whom the entire Internet has a crush, from what I can tell) placing telephone calls to another dimension while on a JLA base on Pluto. It has telepathic man-eating gorillas fighting Justice League robot-clones. It has Batman roasting on a spit. It has Batman in a flying saucer. All of which is drawn by Ed McGuinness, who we all loved on Deadpool in 1997 [Ed: and Superman in the 2000s] and who even manages to make Jeph Loeb worth reading on a semi-regular basis. He's like Joe Madureira except with style and talent and a work ethic.

Oh, and much as I'd like to forget it, JLA/WildC.A.T.s is in this collection, too. Appropriately, as filler. It's drawn by Val Semeiks (DC One Million), whose work I'd describe as "bland" but I can't really work up the enthusiasm to get past "bla." If you've read any superhero crossover before, JLAWildC.A.T.s is just like that one, only not fun or cool. The only thing remotely memorable is that Majestic tells Electric Blue Superman that he'd look good with a cape. Ugh. [Ed: And yet written by Grant Morrison. Go figure.]

Despite the presence of a weak crossover with the Un-X-Men, JLA: Ultramarine Corps is one of those comics I allow myself to at least skim on a monthly basis. It's loud, it's fun, it's touching, and it has lots of Batman. It's everything I love about superhero comics. And at least in terms of succeeding at what it sets out to accomplish, it's every bit as successful as, say, Watchmen. (Yeah, I don't play.)

[Coming next week, the long-awaited Collected Editions review of Final Crisis. Don't miss it!]

Review: Legion of Super-Heroes: Enemy Manifest hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 27, 2009

I re-read the first part of writer Jim Shooter's current run on Legion of Super-Heroes, Enemy Rising, in preparation for reading part two, Enemy Manifest, and found myself enjoying the whole thing considerably more than I did when I first read part one.

Maybe the difference is passage of time; when I started, what I felt where some unnecessarily rude comments Shooter made while the ink was still fresh on Legion's pages) still gnawed at me. I found in this re-reading, however, a detailed, multi-layered Legion story that takes much of its action from intergalactic politics (if you like that sort of thing), with a great helping of calm-before-the-war suspense. There's also plenty of scenes of the Legionnaires using their powers (often two Legionnaires using their powers in tandem) that has for me always been the most enjoyable part of Legion of Super-Heroes.

In Enemy Manifest, Shooter essentially pits the Legion against a takeover from virtual reality. The alien destroyers from the first volume are revealed as avatars of digitized race that lives in the universe's ever-present dark matter. It's a fascinating concept, though one unfortunately that Shooter doesn't get much time to explore before the story ends; under writer Mark Waid, this incarnation of the Legion specifically decried how their society communicated virtually instead of physically, so if you squint and tilt your head, the entire series approximates coming full circle.

To be sure, it's apparent from Enemy Manifest even without Shooter's comments that the end comes quicker than he expected. As some point I thought quite a few of the subplots might tie together in the end -- the mysterious beings counseling Projectra could have been the alien invaders, and they could additionally have been responsible for Timber Wolf's violence, the confusion over what happened between Saturn Girl and Ultra Boy, and Dream Girl being blinded -- but instead these stories trickle off into limbo, with only the main story wrapped up. I'm not all that educated in Legion history, but it wouldn't have hurt to have the virtual reality society called COMPUTO, just for old time's sake.

I did appreciate at least that the Projectra storyline made use of events from Mark Waid's Legion run; Shooter also returns Sun Boy from the earlier Dominator War issues. While I enjoyed Shooter's two volumes, the trouble is that they're "just Legion," whereas Waid's run put a new spin on the Legionnaires (as teenage rebels) that made it more interesting to me than the "kid superteam" of previous incarnations. I'll reserve judgment on Geoff Johns's upcoming Adventure Comics Legion until I read it, but I do hope his Legion has more in some way like Waid's did.

[Contains full covers]

More reviews coming soon. Stay tuned!

Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth possibly includes Green Lantern: No Fear?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Chris Marshall at the Collected Comics Library reports that Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth, due April 2010, could include not only Green Lantern: Rebirth, but also Green Lantern #1-6, collected in Green Lantern: No Fear.

[Note: Rumors fly fast and furious especially around convention season, and indeed we're now hearing that Green Lantern: No Fear may not appear in Green Lantern: Rebirth. In all cases, advance solicitation information should not be considered final until officially solicited by the comics publisher (see, for instance, the change in the Final Crisis collection's contents). The below post has been edited to reflect the new status of the Rebirth information, and we regret any confusion this caused.]

As pleased as I am to see Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth (because, hey, why not?), the possibility of including No Fear would make for, in my opinion, a terrifically uneven reading experience. Green Lantern: Rebirth is quite self-contained, whereas Green Lantern #6 ends on something of an inconclusive note, and the art there by Simone Bianchi differs drastically from what came before.

Granted, those last issues include an appearance by Black Hand, he of Blackest Night, so no doubt that would be a benefit.

But putting No Fear in Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth would beg the question, as one fan asked at the Geoff Johns Spotlight panel, is there more on the way? The subsequent issues of Green Lantern are good but aren't necessarily notable, but there's long been speculation about an Absolute version of The Sinestro Corps War; stretching out Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth would seem the first step toward a sequel.

See our earlier report on Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth.

Thanks also to Rob Stuparyk and Chris Hilker for the head's up and corrections.

Review: Green Arrow/Black Canary: A League of Their Own trade paperback (DC Comics)

Four trade paperbacks ago (roughly fourteen issues of collected comics), Judd Winick ended Green Arrow and began Green Arrow/Black Canary. Since then, Winick has essentially told just one story, that of Green Arrow Oliver Queen's globe-spanning search to find his missing son Connor Hawke, also known as Green Arrow. That story ends in Green Arrow/Black Canary: A League of Their Own, which includes some pleasing ties to the Green Arrow mythos; more controversial I imagine is what seems to have been the intent of this long story, to remove Connor Hawke as Green Arrow and leave only Oliver Queen with the title.

Throughout Winick's run on Green Arrow/Black Canary, I've praised his use of the characters and settings of the DC Universe in demonstrating Green Arrow and Black Canary's central place among those characters. This continues in League of Their Own, with appearances by Batman and Plastic Man as well as a villain recently featured in Winick's Outsiders. Even better in this volume, however, is Winick's inclusion of longtime Green Arrow villain Shado. I hadn't considered that while Green Arrow/Black Canary has been a good DCU story, it hasn't been a terribly Green Arrow-centric story--but using Shado, even if her role could have been played by any of a number of other villains, at least gives the story a bit more relevance.

Ever since Green Arrow Oliver Queen's resurrection a few years back, there's been a surplus of Green Arrows with Connor Hawke. Winick wrote Hawke to great effect in the previous Green Arrow series, but "Team Arrow" never quite had the cache of the Green Lantern Corps. For a while -- per the DC Comics hype machine in full force during the early days of Countdown to Final Crisis -- there was every reason to believe Judd Winick might let Connor Hawke die during the initial events Green Arrow/Black Canary; I don't believe Winick disliked Hawke (in fact, quite the opposite), but I can see how two Green Arrows might not fit with DC's current trend toward having a one, true, iconic version of their heroes.

Instead, what we find at the end of League of Their Own is a Connor Hawke who's still alive, still a hero, still a martial artist -- in fact, even has some enhanced strength and healing factor these days -- but can't hit a target with an arrow even if it's standing right in front of him. In a move that's on one hand ingenious and on the other smacks of such silly weaknesses as vulnerability to yellow or wood, fans can still enjoy the adventures of Connor Hawke, but he'll never again be named Green Arrow because of said aversion to pointy things.

This is good, I think, if you were never all that crazy about Team Arrow, though likely a troubling trend. Whereas the writers didn't make the mistake of also calling Nightwing "Batman" when he first went out on his own, and the nature of the Corps allows Kyle Rayner to be called Green Lantern alongside Hal Jordan, Flash Wally West best be a bit concerned now that there are additional contenders for the Flash name.

I was concerned that Oliver Queen didn't have a place in the DC Universe when he was first resurrected; since that time I've grown to like the character very much. He's now in essence the One True Green Arrow, but with Judd Winick leaving the title, I wonder about the future of the character. I like Green Arrow, but how does the Green Arrow title differentiate itself from Batman or Manhunter, and how does it avoid the that lead to the former series' cancellation? These'll be things I'm watching when the new creative team comes along.

[Contains full covers.]

On now to finish Jim Shooter's run on Legion of Super-Heroes. Don't miss it!

Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 5, Batman & Robin Deluxe HC Continue DC 2010 Collections

Monday, July 20, 2009

Just learned we can expect Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 5 -- first solicited in 2007 and long considered the holy grail of missing DC Comics collections -- coming April 2010.

Also, the first hardcover collection of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's Batman & Robin, "Batman Reborn," will be in deluxe format to match Batman RIP.

Now more details:

* Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 5

In April 2007, DC Comics solicited Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 5, the next volume in a series collecting the classic JLA/JSA team-ups the preceded Crisis on Infinite Earths. At the time, the book was to include Justice League of America #159-160 ("Crisis from Yesteday" and "Crisis from Tomorrow," where the JLA/JSA meet the Black Pirate, Enemy Ace, Jonah Hex, Miss Liberty, and the Viking Prince); 171-172 ("Crisis Above Earth-One," the death of the original Mr. Terrific); and #183-185 ("Crisis on New Genesis," "Crisis Between Two Earths," and "Crisis on Apokolips," where the JLA/JSA encounter the New Gods).

* Batman & Robin Vol. 1: Batman Reborn Deluxe HC

I'm pleased to see the first collection of the Morrison/Quietly series get the deluxe treatment not only for the better view of Quietly's art, but also that it'll fits on my shelf right next to Batman RIP.

* Superboy: The Greatest Team-Ups Ever Told

Sure, any number of people may be looking for classic Superboy team-ups collected in this volume, but I'd like to see the two issues generally known as Superboy/Robin: WF3 (or "World's Finest Three," following Dave Gibbon's World's Finest and Walt Simonson's Legends of the World's Finest. Published in the heyday of the new Superboy (later Kon-El) and Tim Drake Robin series, these were written by respective series writers Karl Kesel and Chuck Dixon, with art by Tom Grummett who had worked on both series. Like my all-time favorite team-up, The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones, this story teams not just the heroes, but their supporting casts, and it's well worthy of being collected.

* JLA Deluxe Edition Vol. 3

The second JLA Deluxe volume collected issues #10-17. If this one skips #18-21, which were Mark Waid-written issues (and good issues, but I don't know if this is just a Morrison series collection), then it might collect #22-23 (with the Sandman), #24-26 (Ultramarine Corp and the new Shaggy Man), and #28-31 ("Crisis Times Five" with the JSA). DC One Million falls in there, too, and it'll be interesting to see how DC handles that.

* DC Comics Classic Library: Justice League of America By George Perez Vol. 2

I thought this was the last of two volumes, but there's a lot of Perez Justice League still to collect (I count 21 issues: #195-197, 199, 200-205, 207-209, 212-215, 217-220). Maybe a third volume will follow?

* Gotham City Sirens Vol. 1: Union HC

* Red Robin: The Grail

I'm rather surprised to see Gotham Sirens in hardcover even as Red Robin appears in paperback. I certainly enjoyed Paul Dini's work on Detective Comics, but not enough to purchase what's a truly ancillary title (not even one of Batman's assistants, but a gaggle of villains) in hardcover.

* Superman: Codename Patriot HC

For a hardcover, hopefully this will collect more than just the four issues of the Superman titles crossover (plus the Jimmy Olsen Special.

* Teen Titans: Child's Play

The title of this reminds me of Teen Titans: A Kid's Game, which I consider both a great Titans story and a fantastically well-collected trade (you can barely tell where one issue ends and another begins) -- and how little I've been enjoying Titans lately as compared to when the title began. It's sad, really, that a title that begins with such steam can fall so far; it makes me concerned for the day the same might happen to Green Lantern, for instance.

And one to grow on ...

* Power Girl: A New Beginning

See our thoughts on the other DC Comics' 2010 trade paperback and collected edition solicitations, including DC Universe: Origins and more!

Review: Superman: Braniac hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

[Contains spoilers for Superman: Brainiac]

The collected Superman: Brainiac follows a string of Action Comics successes for Geoff Johns, but this may be the best of the library. Johns and then-Superman writer Kurt Busiek effectively rebooted the Superman franchise with Up, Up, and Away and Last Son, but on the eve of the "New Krypton" storyline, Brainiac feels like another reboot -- one that firmly grounds Superman in his Metropolis supporting cast and portrays the best Clark Kent I've seen in years.

As he's has done before in Green Lantern and Hawkman, Johns revitalizes the Superman/Brainiac rivalry by offering a new take which simultaneously preserves everything that came before. The iterations of Brainiac that Superman has fought before, he learns, are simply probes of the one, true Brainiac, which Johns can now introduce for the first time. Never mind that this makes no sense in the context of the original stories; that Johns offers even this partial nod to continuity is what counts.

Johns's new Brainiac is actually a bit mundane as Brainiacs go, essentially a rehashing of the Superman: The Animated Series Brainiac. But in tying Brainiac to Krypton, Johns makes Brainiac a better foil for Superman than he's been before ("You've told me Lex Luthor is everything bad about humanity," Supergirl quips. "Well, Brainiac is everything bad about aliens."). The even bigger selling point for the new Brainiac, however, is artist Gary Frank, who channels his inner Ridley Scott for a decidedly Alien take on Brainiac, complete with organic-mechanical tubes drilling through Superman's forehead and down his throat. As in Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Frank draws a suspenseful, pulse-pounding ending to the story as good as any Superman movie.

Where Johns really succeeds in this volume is in the small set-up scenes, before Brainiac arrives, of Clark Kent and Lois Lane at the Daily Planet. Pre-Infinite Crisis, Greg Rucka wrote a more traditionally nerdy Clark Kent that differed from the mid-1990s budding novelist Kent, but that lacked the tongue-in-cheek sparkle we saw in the nerdy Clark Kent of the Superman movies. But as Johns's Clark Kent mildly but pointedly defuses the over-the-top Daily Planet staffers Steve Lombard and Cat Grant, with a Margot Kidder-styled Lois Lane smirking behind, we not only get a perfect demonstration of how Clark Kent and Superman could exist in the same person, but why Lois Lane and Clark Kent are perfect partners -- without the mushy declarations of affection found in James Robinson's The Coming of Atlas over in the Superman title.

Johns makes the choice in this volume to kill Pa Kent. While I don't mind the unabashed love Johns and company show for the Superman movies in this current Action Comics run, I was disappointed by the loss of a character that I felt added a lot to the 1990s-era Superman stories (though thankfully Johns spared us the "All my powers ..." line). I do understand that this affords Johns the opportunity to truly differentiate his run from that of the ground-breaking 1980s Superman revamp by John Byrne that kept Pa Kent alive for the first time in decades; I also understand the thematic dichotomy of Pa Kent dying at the same time Superman enters the "New Krypton" storyline. I'm not entirely convinced the thematic tie was worth it though; I'll be watching "New Krypton" for that moment, if you will, that without Pa Kent's death it wouldn't have been possible to achieve.

Despite my indecision, however, Superman: Brainiac is a good comic, it's good Superman, and as with Geoff Johns's Superman tales before, it's based in continuity while at the same time something I think I could give a new comics reader and they'd understand all the beats. I'm a long-time Superman fan, and it's been a while since the title's been this good as Johns's Action Comics.

[Contains full covers]

Green Arrow/Black Canary and Legion of Super-Heroes coming up next week. Stay tuned!

Review: Superman: The Coming of Atlas hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I wanted to like James Robinson's Superman: The Coming of Atlas. The work Geoff Johns has done of late on Action Comics in Last Son, Escape from Bizarro World, and Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes are among the best Superman stories in years; I've mentioned that I thought the stories Kurt Busiek wrote on Superman alongside Johns weren't quite of the same caliber, so I was eager to see how Robinson fared in replacement. Much as I treasure Robinson's work on Starman, however, his first Superman foray failed to move me.

For their intended goals, the two main story arcs of Atlas do work well. Krypto the Super-Dog plays a large role here, as Robinson moves him from the "bad dog" as which he was previously portrayed to ultimate acceptance by the people of Metropolis. This is a good and worthy move, if perhaps unworthy of a four issue storyline. Second, Robinson certainly gives the reader a thorough introduction to the new villain Atlas; I'm still not sure I understand what motivated Atlas beyond general world domination, but his personality comes through clear and there's a certain boisterous orneriness to him that's quite enjoyable.

Unfortunately, The Coming of Atlas feels like decompressed comics at their worst. I talked previously about how Geoff Johns's recent Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come is a long, decompressed storyline, but where every scene feels necessary. In the first chapter of Atlas, Superman appears for only a couple pages playing frisbee with Krypto before a group of generic Science Police fight Atlas in the rest of the space.

There's a number of two-panel pages where Superman punches Atlas or Atlas punches Superman. We're supposed to understand Atlas as a power-house a la Doomsday, but the fact that Atlas remains squarely in the center of Metropolis through the whole story while Superman punches him, flies away, punches him again, etc., makes it feel like a two-issue story stretches to four issues perhaps to fill a scheduling hole.

More importantly, however, I had trouble warming to Robinson's Superman. In the first pages, Superman makes a joke to Green Lantern Hal Jordan about how "exotic" the late hero Jade was, to which Hal must remind him that Jade both died tragically and dated Kyle Rayner, not Hal. This isn't exactly a Superman I'd want to hang around with.

Later, when Lois asks why something Clark says sounds dirty, he responds "Rao, I have no idea, Lois, why does it?" Renado Guedes's art gives Atlas a classic look, but here his Clark is so wooden that it's impossible to tell whether Robinson intends Clark to be kidding or serious. Clark emotes to Lois, "I've had a big life ... but you're the one I've spent that life waiting to love," followed by a ridiculous image of Lois straddling Clark in her underwear. Far from funny or romantic, entire sequence makes Robinson's Superman seem boring and vaguely juvenile.

In addition, while I appreciate that Robinson's trying to highlight Superman's supporting cast, a few sequences left me scratching my head. When Lana Lang tries to aid Superman, she's fired from her CEO position at LexCorp (that didn't last long) by an automated Lex Luthor hologram -- even though Johns and Busiek clearly established that the powers that be at LexCorp hired Lana purposefully to escape the shadow of Lex, who's now considered a criminal. Supergirl hears Superman's call for help with Atlas while she's inexplicably playing with some lions on a veldt; understanding that Atlas beats Superman rather severely, both Supergirl and Lois seemingly fall to tears very quickly in this story. And off panel Atlas apparently defeats both Steel and Superman's old friend Bibbo, wearing a Superman shirt -- two callbacks to the death and return of Superman that seemed gigantically out of place almost twenty years later.

Again, one bright spot in the story is Atlas, whose over-the-top personality (think Aquaman on Batman: The Brave and the Bold gone bad) steals each scene. I was disappointed, however, that given Robinson's attempt to create a villain that was Superman's physical equal, we learn in the end that Atlas's powers are magic-based. Though this allows for an interesting (if strangely ill-timed) conversation between Superman and the Teen Titan Zatara, it seems to me to belie some of the "cunning" and "power" that the book's jacket promises Atlas has. The villain becomes something of a Mr. Mxyzptlk -- Superman only has to find the right magic McGuffin each time he appears, and Atlas will disappear as he did this time, quite unceremoniously.

I've very much liked James Robinson's writing in the past, not to mention he was darn nice the other day answering my question via Twitter. Here's hoping I'm more impressed with his Superman work the next time out.

[Contains full covers, including variant covers; introduction by James Robinson]

Next up, Superman: Brainiac!

Beginner's Guide to Marvel Masterworks, Essential, and Omnibus Spider-Man

Monday, July 13, 2009

[The following article comes from Collected Editions reader Davie Chin]

In recent years Marvel has released many reprint collections in trade paperback form containing their classic comics from the 1960s and 1970s. It can be a bit confusing which ones to buy as Marvel has three different lines of books which aim to reprint the same material but in different formats. Those lines are Essential, Omnibus and Marvel Masterworks.

The Essential line is the most economical as the softcover volumes are printed in black and white on newsprint quality paper. The book dimensions are virtually the same as the standard sized comic. The artwork comes out quite clearly in black and white and is perfectly readable. These trades are very convenient and lightweight, offering over 500 pages of content per volume. On the flipside, they are a bit flimsy and there have been reports of the occasional book falling apart due to their less-than-sturdy construction.

In 2007, Marvel began releasing Omnibus editions. These are massive hardcovers ranged from 700 to over 1,000 pages long. The dimensions of the reprinted issues are slightly larger than the standard comic book, and they feature artwork that’s been restored with remastered coloring to match the original comics as closely as possible. This makes the Omnibus books the most expensive, but you certainly get what you pay for. The main issue you may have is that these books are so big and heavy that you will need to put them on a table to read them. They aren’t books you can hold in your hands comfortably. As far as quality of the reprints themselves, you won’t find anything that looks better or more authentic than those contained in the Omnibus.

Marvel Masterworks were a series of hardcover reprints originally released in 1987. The original Masterworks are relatively hard to find and expensive, but luckily Marvel began re-releasing them in early 2009 in softcover trade paperback form. They have standard comic book sized dimensions and are printed in color. They offer the least content per volume, offering around 250 pages or more, but are a good compromise between the Essential and Omnibus editions.

Which you should purchase depends on what you’re looking for and what your budget will allow. In the Omnibus editions, all the issues appear inside with full page covers, but with few extras. For first time readers that are curious I think the new Marvel Masterworks TPBs are the best option, but if you don’t mind black and white you can get almost twice the content per volume at a lower price with the Essential books. It should be noted that the Essential line covers the largest amount of classic comics. For later issues published in the 1970s, the Essential books are your only option at least until the other books catch up.

Here’s a rundown of these volumes as relates to my favorite hero, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man made his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. Months later that same year he would appear in his own monthly title called the Amazing Spider-Man. Up to now there are eight volumes of Essential Spider-Man which reprint Amazing Spider-Man.

Whether you choose to buy either the Essential, Omnibus or Marvel Masterworks reprint collections, you’ll be getting Amazing Fantasy #15 and at least Amazing Spider-Man #1-10. The stories in these issues encompass a lot of what fans love about Spider-Man.

Amazing Fantasy #15 details his origin story. It’s a simple story that gets straight to the point and in my opinion is an almost perfect origin story. It introduced the social (or lack thereof) life of Peter Parker as well as his Aunt May. It also showed how he got his powers and costume, and the event that motivated him to become a superhero.

Amazing Spider-Man shows his exploits as he encounters many villains who would become mainstays of his rogues’ gallery like Doctor Octopus, Lizard, Sandman, Vulture, Electro and Chameleon. Early on Spidey tackles other popular Marvel characters such as the Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom. J. Jonah Jameson also makes his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #1 as the Daily Bugle’s ranting editor. Later issues would introduce his secretary Betty Brant whom would be Peter’s first girlfriend. This is what you can expect from Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1.

In Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1 you’ll get ten more issues of Amazing Spider-Man and an annual. Other Marvel heroes such as Daredevil and Hulk make appearances, as well as new villains Mysterio, Green Goblin, Kraven and Scorpion. The annual features the formation of the Sinister Six which is a great action-packed story. Throughout all this Peter has to deal with his fair share of personal issues at school and at work but I’ll leave that for the new reader to discover.

Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus Vol. 1 collects Steve Ditko’s entire run up to Amazing Spider-Man #38 before his departure from the title. Compared to the first twenty issues of Amazing Spider-Man, the next ten or so feature some rather forgettable villains although some of the A-list villains do return. The first “appearance” of Peter’s future wife, Mary Jane Watson, also occurs but with her face obscured. You never actually see her face in this volume. Peter graduates from high school and goes to university where he meets Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy. Harry’s dad Norman is also introduced. These characters would become very significant in the overall Spider-Man mythos. A real highlight are issues #31-33 comprising the Master Planner story arc which is considered by many fans to be one of the best Spider-Man stories ever.

To summarize:

Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1 contains Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1-10 plus an introduction by Stan Lee from the original 1987 release. Volume 2 will be released in 2009.

Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1 contains Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-20 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1. There are eight volumes in total with volume 9 being released in late 2009.

Note: If you intend to buy volumes 3 and 4 read the next paragraph as there are some discrepancies between different printings.

The more recent printings of volumes 3 and 4 are actually called second editions if you read the fine print inside the books. Older printings of volume 3 and 4 collect Amazing Spider-Man #44-68 and Amazing Spider-Man #69-89 and Annuals #4-5 respectively. The second edition printings of volume 3 and 4 collect Amazing Spider-Man #44-65 and Annual #4 and Amazing Spider-Man #66-89 and Annual #5 respectively. When you buy volumes 3 and 4 make sure to check that they’re both edition 1 or both edition 2 so that you don’t miss out on any issues. Edition 2 volumes have the title Amazing Spider-Man on their front covers (along with different artwork) while Edition 1 volumes do not. Issues reprinted are also indicated on the front cover.

Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus Vol. 1 contains Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-38, Annual #1-2 and the Spider-Man stories from Strange Tales Annual #2 and Fantastic Four Annual #1. All the issues are sequenced in the order they were originally published. Introductions from the original 1987 Marvel Masterworks volume appear at the beginning and every ten issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Extras include a full page copy of Steve Ditko’s original cover for Amazing Fantasy #15 as well as a few other unused Amazing Spider-Man covers. There is no release date as of now for volume 2.

Stan Lee knew how to create memorable characters and Steve Ditko knew how to draw them. Most of these tales were self contained and covered both Peter Parker’s personal life and his exploits as Spider-Man with the latter, often interfering with the former in humorous yet believable ways. Peter’s social outcast status at school made him relatable and his adventures as Spidey entertained us with acrobatic fights and funny quips. The more contorted, flexible body positions that Spidey artists draw today may make Ditko’s Spidey look stiff by comparison, but the art still holds up pretty well.

Even though the stories are dated and some dialogue super cheesy by today’s standards, they’re still a joy to read. Spider-Man had cool powers but often used his intellect to defeat his foes. There were certainly some lame villains whom would never be seen again, but the majority of them would be used by future writers for decades.

I highly recommend these early stories, no matter the format, to new and old readers alike.

Review: Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come Vol. 3 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The third volume of Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come ends an interesting experiment in trade paperback comics.

As much as has been beneficial about the rise of trade paperback collections, it's also at times been an excuse for writers to pad out shorter storylines to a neat six-issues in order to fill a trade, with done-in-one-trade stories that don't much forward the title's status quo (see recent volumes of Teen Titans). Thy Kingdom Come instead introduces a seemingly new kind of long-form superhero comics, a storyline with a distinct beginning and end, but with a number of digressions along the way and unrelated storylines which weave in and out of the main thread. At times this is a mini-series, at times these are single issues of Justice Society -- it's a novel, it's a comic, it's a collage. I have a sense that what writer Geoff Johns attempts here is wholly new, at least in terms of DC Comics superhero collections.

In a fashion, we could argue, Johns attempts the same thing with Green Lantern, as Grant Morrison does with his run on Batman. The difference is that both Green Lantern/Blackest Night and Batman RIP remain individual storylines among separate-but-connected storylines, whereas Thy Kingdom Come is just one storyline at the near unheard-of size of twelve-plus issues. If anything, perhaps only Johns and James Robinson's open-ended Superman: New Krypton story comes close; it remains to be seen how long this storyline will be or to what extent DC Comics will collect it under the "New Krypton" bannerhead, but that too may produce connected multiple volumes during its year-or-longer run.

This is important, I think, because as a trend it would cause a certain equilibrium to enter the trade paperback reading experience. No longer would trade paperbacks be collections of self-contained storylines on one hand, or a collected series of done-in-one issues on the other. Instead this kind of long-form storytelling combines the best aspect of monthly comic book collecting (a deepening story that builds over time) with the more sustained reading experience one gets from a trade paperback. At the outset I felt some frustration that Thy Kingdom Come would take three volumes to tell, but in the end I marveled at how each issue and volume stood on its own, but combined to create a massive and involved storyline.

Writer and artist Alex Ross talks at the end of Thy Kingdom Come about how the story is not as much a sequel to Ross and Mark Waid's original King dom Come as it is an homage and a "checking back in" with the Kingdom Come characters. I much prefer thinking about it this way, as the second volume of this series all but drops any ties to Kingdom Come short of the presence of that series's Superman. The third volume returns to the subject; though ultimately Thy Kingdom Come might've been told without Kingdom Come at all, Ross and Johns flesh out a couple of the original's scenes, and integrate enough of the new and old in the end that one might almost believe Thy Kingdome Come really fits between the pages of the original. I for one wouldn't have minded the Kingdom Come Superman sticking around a while longer, though likely that would cause more confusion for new readers than it would be worth.

At the center of Thy Kingdom Come are Gog and Magog, and I found the latter as fascinating as the former ridiculous. No reader very well believed Gog would turn out to be the benevolent god he seemed, but his downfall left me shrugging; I was sure that the "gifts" he provided had some ulterior motive (restoring Dr. Mid-Nite's sight at the cost of his powers; sending Power Girl to her home universe, except everyone tried to kill her), but it turns out instead that Gog's just a very bad gift-giver. Gog turns out to be in the end just what he says he was, a god of the Third World buried underground, and ultimately how the Justice Society members fought over Gog's presence was far more interesting than Gog himself.

The new Magog, however, provides one of the most chilling chapters of Thy Kingdom Come. Writer Peter Tomasi steps in for a surprisingly bloody chapter where Magog, former Lance Corporal David Reid, seeks out his captured former unit and takes gory revenge on their captors. The chapter, which comes right in the middle of this volume of Thy Kingdom Come and at a time when much of the Justice Society is at odds with one another, reveals Magog quite nearly as a villain, certainly someone Superman would sooner put in jail than team-up with. It posits Magog as nearly the Black Adam of the new Justice Society (though he's back, too), a time-bomb waiting to go off, and it's a harrowing example of the powerful digressions Thy Kingdom Come contains. Based on this, I'm not running to read a new Magog series, but I'll be curious to see how it goes over.

Another of Thy Kingdom Come's digressions is Power Girl's trip to Earth-2, supposedly her long-lost home until that world's own Power Girl shows up (see "Gog-the-really-bad-gift-giver"). Here, Geoff Johns turns DC Comics's revamped Multiverse concept on it's head; Power Girl, we learned in Infinite Crisis, is the last survivor of the Earth-2 that was destroyed in Crisis on Infinite Earths, though seemingly at the end of 52 Earth-2 returned. Except, what we come to understand is that the "new" Earth-2 isn't the same planet as the old Earth-2, but rather a recreated Earth-2 with its own Power Girl. Maybe it's better that Power Girl can now see "our" Earth as her home, but it seems Johns causes no end of confusion here -- Power Girl is the last survivor of Earth-2 "but not that Earth-2, the other one." The Earth-2 sequences in this book (with art by Jerry Ordway) are much fun, but I'm stymied as to the story's ultimate purpose.

Geoff Johns reunites us for a while with the Kingdom Come Superman in Thy Kingdom Come, in a powerful story that shows the depth of the Justice Society characters even if it winds and rambles and doesn't tie all of its strings quite together. Ultimately Thy Kingdom Come strikes me as nearing what may be the next iteration of trade paperback comics, something that reads more like a series of novels than a collection of comic book issues; I'm curious if anyone else had the same reaction.

[Contains full covers, character bios and summary section, sketches and thoughts from Alex Ross.]

A bunch of new Superman reviews coming up!

DC Universe: Origins, Brave and Bold: Milestone Top DC 2010 Collections

Monday, July 06, 2009

A couple unusual collections stuck out to us from the list of DC Comics early 2010 collected comics solicitations that we wanted to bring special attention to.

DC Universe: Origins - Could this be a collection of the 52 and Countdown hero and villain profile pages (and maybe the Blackest Night "Origins and Omens" lead-ins)? Long rumored, it looks like this collection is finally here. Of course, the other possibility is that this collects a new History of the DC Universe ... (Remember when you read about DC Universe: Origins later, you heard it on Collected Editions first!)

Batman: Under the Cowl - With all the hubub these days as to who wears Batman's cowl, this collection by various authors surely contains stories from the Golden Age to today of times when someone else was behind Batman's mask.

Brave and the Bold: Milestone - Written by Dwayne McDuffie and others, this collection surely includes Brave and the Bold #24-26, which teams the Milestone characters with the heroes of the DC Universe, but three issues isn't enough to make a collection. Surely DC won't reprint the entire fourteen-issue DC Comics/Milestone Worlds Collide miniseries from the 1990s, but I wonder if parts of it will end up here.

Kobra: Resurrection - Kobra's experiencing a comeback in the DC Universe right now, between the "Faces of Evil" story and Eric Trautmann's JSA vs. Kobra miniseries. I've heard rumors there's more to come, and this collection undoubtedly contains recent stories plus selections from the 1970s Kobra series. (Or maybe DC's trying to horn in on the upcoming GI Joe movie.)

The Creeper by Steve Ditko - This hardcover, which seems akin to the Jack Kirby Demon Omnibus and like titles, seems to collect at least Steve Ditko's Creeper stories from Adventure Comics #445-447, World's Finest Comics #249-55, and The Flash (vol. 1) #318-323. Could a The Question by Steve Ditko hardcover be far behind?

Starman Omnibus Vol. 4 - The fourth Starman Omnibus would seem to contain the sixth and seventh Starman trade paperbacks, To Reach the Stars and A Starry Knight, roughly issues #39 through #53 of the series. That leaves three more trade paperbacks left to be collected, but two omnibus volumes planned. Will some additional Starman material round out the sixth?

Doc Savage: The Silver Pyramid - With the apparent return of Doc Savage, the Phantom, and others to the DC Universe, here's a collection of Doc Savage stories by Dennis O'Neil.

Tiny Titans: Sidekickin' It! - Just liked the name of this one, pure and simple.

Your question of the day: - What's the biggest, most ostentatious comics collection not year produced that you'd like to see? Dream big!

Review: Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come Vol. 2 hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

While writers Geoff Johns and Alex Ross, and artist Dale Eaglesham, have created an interesting, visually striking story in their second volume of Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come, it's a seeming departure from the intended point of this series. While Thy Kingdome Come part two sees the culmination of Johns intent to make the former JSA into a real justice "society," the aspect of this meant to be a sequel to Kingdom Come fades away.

A fun pin-up that Eaglesham includes at the end of this book sports twenty-five Justice Society members, and even the first pages of the book involved Jakeem Thunder and Stargirl discussing how crowded the Justice Society brownstone has become. Indeed Johns has suceeded in making the Justice Society a real society of heroes (that "society" didn't mean the same thing back then as now not withstanding).

With so many characters, it's understandable that some of them fall by the wayside -- Thunder, Hourman, and Judomaster, to name a few, while the young Cyclone somehow suddenly manifests a monkey -- but each also has a distinct personality as evinced by Eaglesham's pin-up. One of my favorites without doubt is the new Amazing-Man, tied to a civil rights legacy; he shines in his success talking with a risen god as a man of faith, when Mr. Terrific fails to communicate using secular means.

Indeed, even as the plot of Thy Kingdom Come tends toward the scattered and predictable, what's striking here are the pages upon pages that Johns devotes to discussing the different faiths and philosophies of the characters. Justice Society has mildly dealt with the beliefs of Mr. Terrific and Dr. Mid-Nite before, but here the amount of dialogue was akin to Greg Rucka's Checkmate. There are full-blown action sequences here, but also a lot of talking and comparing among the heroes, and I welcomed it. In three volumes, Thy Kingdom Come is a decompressed story to be sure, but Johns uses the decompression to give a great amount of depth to the heroes.

Thy Kingdom Come didn't work for me in two places. First, Johns replaces the initial villain of the piece with a second villain half-way through, and it has the effect of making many of the events of volume one rather unnecessary. Second, the replacement villain has even fewer ties to the Kingdom Come Superman that appears here than the first one did; for a story that's supposed to be a sequel to Kingdom Come, it begins to seem that the only tie between one story and the next is Superman.

Frankly, the initial story was the more interesting to me. Volume two involves a resurrected god providing wish fulfillment that the reader just knows is going to go wrong. I enjoyed the Multiverse aspects of this, as the god sends Power Girl to a Jerry Ordway-drawn Earth-2 to meet that world's equivalent of Infinity Inc., but ultimately it seems Johns spends too long suspending a hammer over our heroes heads, pretending it won't drop when we all know it will.

Certainly in terms of depth and personality, it's no question why Justice Society of America remains one of the best books on the shelves. I'm just hoping part three of Thy Kingdom Come binds the pieces together better, making the story more than just a frentic superhero romp.

[Contains full covers, Dale Eaglesham Justice society pin-up, "What Came Before" pages, brief character bios.]

Collected Editions is back! We continue next time with Thy Kingdom Come volume three.

Odds and Ends for 7-1-09

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

And we're back!

A big round of applause to Scott Cederlund, Adam Noble, Angela Paman, Erika Peterman, Bob Schoonover, and Kelson Vibber all for contributing guest reviews this past month. You're welcome any time! I love the different perspective that all of them brought to the blog, and we'll have more guest reviews coming up interspersed with the regular fare.

Collected Editions is back in full force starting tomorrow with reviews of Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come volumes two and three. Coming up we've got Superman, Legion of Super-Heroes ... and the much-anticipated Collected Editions review of Final Crisis! We're also looking forward to some new features and a major update to the DC Trade Paperback Timeline, so don't go anywhere!

We love writing Collected Editions and we appreciate everyone who reads it. Stay tuned ... great things to come!