Thursday, December 30, 2010
Here are three great reasons why I should make a complete and irrevocable switch to collected editions of comic books: convenience, economics and, my personal favorite, common sense.
Because, let’s be honest, there really isn’t a good reason for me to continue to make my weekly journey to my local comic shop: the best of the week’s releases will be collected in hardcover or trade paperback within six months, the price for the collection inevitably seems to be slightly cheaper than buying all of the individual issues, and it’s much more cozy and comfortable to curl up with a collected edition of some 168 pages than it is to read six individual issues of a comic book.
Yet I still find myself going to my shop every single Wednesday.
And the more I think about it, the more I blame Grant Morrison for my on-going addiction.
There are a lot of great writers currently doing monthly comic books. Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Geoff Johns, Robert Kirkman and others all do terrific work, but I do my best not to double dip and I can usually resist the weekly temptation of their books. Captain America, Iron Man, The Flash and The Walking Dead can wait for the publication of the collections before they see my cash.
As a matter of fact, Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is perhaps the greatest monthly series ever when it comes to waiting for the trade: it is a completely self-contained story, internet spoilers are easy to avoid and the book is a tremendous treat to read in its collected form. And the Walking Dead Compendium? – That book is pure gold. After finishing the massively thick collection, it’s almost impossible not to want more. And yet I manage to avoid the monthly temptation because it reads so damn well in its collected form. On top of all that, I don’t care if the book sees any delays in its monthly schedule as long as the trades keep coming out.
With other creators I live in hope (and fear) that what they write is allowed to stand on its own without a massive company-wide crossover meddling with their stories. I have little interest in the characters outside of the books that my favorite writers are handling. So I don’t care if Captain America has a major role in next summer’s Civil Secret Siege War as long as I don't have to purchase some extraneous book in order to understand what's going on with Brubaker’s work.
But all of my self-restraint gets tossed out the window when it comes to Grant Morrison’s work. I find myself unable to resist his monthly books even though I know that I will eventually be buying them again in their collected form.
And the irony is that Grant Morrison’s work is among the most collected of modern comic book creators. A person may argue with the schedule of hardcovers vs. paperbacks or worry that all of his Batman stories may not be reprinted in the same format, but it’s almost guaranteed that everything he currently writes will be collected. It’s not as if I risk missing one of his stories by waiting six months.
So, why am I unable to wait? Why this sense of urgency when it comes to Morrison’s monthly comics?
Much of the appeal is because Morrison is currently creating a huge mosaic for Batman which will act as a springboard that other creators can build upon. Rather than just reboot the character (a la Wonder Woman) or send him walking across America (a la Superman), Morrison is revamping and energizing the character by methodically revealing the parts of a puzzle that he’s been developing for years. It’s incredibly entertaining to see all of the pieces as they come together rather than wait to see the completed picture.
Seeing Morrison’s ideas unfold in individual issues is like having a new Harry Potter movie debut every month: I love the sense of anticipation and mystery as I wait for each issue. I’m not sure where the story is going, but I trust that Morrison will deliver. And there’s also a sense of community created as I delve into the various annotations of the stories and read what other people think of the story. The same thrill isn't there when a collected edition is printed.
This is not to say that my addiction to Morrison does not have its negative aspects. Editorial errors and publication delays have made the past couple of months frustrating, especially when one story concludes before its tie-in mini-series is completed. Waiting for the trades would eliminate the annoyance that these snafus create.
It has also become apparent with the most recent issues and their need for various artists to assist in completing the stories that Morrison is writing his scripts right up to (and perhaps past) deadline. And if multiple artists are needed to finish an issue it’s not unreasonable to infer that the artists who did single-handedly complete their issues were working at a hurried pace. None of this suggests that what’s being produced is anyone’s best or most polished work.
But unless DC decides to create new pages for the collected editions (which they have done for Infinite Crisis and The Invisibles, so it’s not unheard of) what’s being currently being published is as good as it gets. Morrison’s next major work is supposed to be a multi-artist mini-series that explores DC’s Multiverse. I can only hope that the editor will have the scripts in-hand and the artists have the opportunity to be well ahead of schedule before the books are solicited.
Having said all of that, I still find myself hooked on Morrison’s work. When he doesn’t have a (supposedly) monthly book coming out, my enthusiasm for serialized stories dwindles. So I’m thrilled that he’s going to keep writing the series with Batman Inc.
And because of Morrison and his Batman stories, I find myself buying other books on my weekly trip. Because, let’s be honest, there’s no point in going to the comic shop just to buy one book.
So his work acts like a gateway drug to further comic book addiction. Jonah Hex is a terrific monthly book, Freedom Fighters gets a try-out for at least a couple of issues, Knight and Squire gets a look, both of Paul Levitz’ Legion books are being purchased, and others comics are also being bought.
And, completely shattering my resolution, I also find myself buying Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Incognito even though I know that I’m going to eventually buy the collection. After all, if I’m going to buy Batman & Robin, The Return of Bruce Wayne and the upcoming Batman Inc. in individual issues and then in trades, I may as well break that rule for other creators as well.
I blame Grant Morrison for my lack of resolve. And, to be honest, it feels good.
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Monday, December 27, 2010
Given that Booster Gold used to be the "Bwah-ha-ha" comic relief of the Justice League, it's astounding just how depressed Jurgens presents him in this book, even moreso than the previous volumes. Booster is neither the Superman-esque archtypical superhero, nor the Batman dark hero; Booster is a third kind, the sad hero. The book still derives its humor through witty banter between the characters, but Jurgens recounts (almost too much) everything Booster has to be sad about -- no family, dead friends, and no one in which he can confide. It gives the book a distinct tone that I think is worthy of recognition, but someone expecting the Booster Gold of old might be significantly surprised.
The four-part "Tomorrow Memory" story presented second in this book offers an interesting conflict, in that Booster -- angry that Rip Hunter won't let him change time -- has to convince an even more reckless time traveler of the same. Set against the backdrop of Reign of the Supermen's destruction of Coast City, it's easy to follow Booster's growth in the story, and the arguments that Booster and the time-traveler Sonia Crane make for and against saving a mass-murderer to preserve future heroics is the kind of goodness you want from a time-travel comic.
The story also gives Dan Jurgens a chance to draw again Coast City, Mongul, and the Cyborg Superman, all right in the thick of some of Jurgens's best Reign of the Supermen work. Jurgens remembers the fine details of that story as well as we fans do, and the references to the Cyborg Superman meeting the president and Mongul creating "Engine City" evoke the nostalgia in full. If you still love that scene where Lois meets the original Cyborg Superman in the rain, you'll love this book -- and that's on top of Jurgens depicting the long-awaited origin of Vanishing Point, the home of the Time Masters set just before the end of all existence.
Unfortunately, however, the broad strokes of "Tomorrow Memory" repeat almost exactly a couple of stories from earlier in this Booster Gold series. Booster argues with Rip Hunter about being unable to change time; Booster goes to the past to try to change time, and ultimately fails; Booster and Rip reconcile, but Rip is compelled enough by Booster's argument that he changes a bit of the past as a boon to Booster. This is, to an extent, both what happened to Booster in 52 Pickup when he tried to save Barbara Gordon, and in Blue and Gold when he tried to save Ted Kord; at the end of the latter, Rip returned to life Booster's sister Michelle. As such, for long-time Booster Gold readers, this story will seem predictable, all the more reason why the real draw here is Jurgens nostalgia and not the story itself.
The two-part Blackest Night crossover "Dead Ted" that begins Tomorrow Memory doesn't offer much more. Jurgens's peek at Blue Beetle's superhero funeral is wonderfully emotional, but Booster's fight with the resurrected Black Lantern Blue Beetle is surprisingly flat. Given that Ted Kord's death remains the core of the Booster GOld series, one would expect much more nuance from Booster and "Dead Ted"'s meeting, but Booster understands far too quickly that the Black Lantern is not his dead friend. The conflict becomes simply between Booster and a generic bad guy (as have been many of the Blackest Night crossovers), and it's almost surprising how little it contributes to the ongoing Booster Gold story, let alone to Blackest Night itself.
Still, I'm a sucker for a good crossover, and Booster Gold: The Tomorrow Memory's final saving grace is that it sets up, in vague fleeting moments, ties to Time Masters: Vanishing Point, The Return of Bruce Wayne, and Flashpoint. I'm reminded of the lead-in to Final Crisis, for instance, where Brave and the Bold: Lords of Luck opined that a Great Disaster was coming -- equally vague and ultimately without any real connection to Final Crisis, but still enough in the early days to send chills down the reader's spine. I'm being pandered to, I know, and it's all in the service of DC getting me to put down my hard-earned change on Flashpoint and all its tie-ins -- but I love this kind of thing nonetheless. Tomorrow Memory ends with a Time Masters teaser, and as Dan Jurgens leaves this title for that one, I'll happily follow along as well.
[Contains full covers]
This Booster Gold trade hints at Flashpoint while the next volume ties in to Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost. Yes, there may be Blackest Night tie-in issues here, but it seems the days of the next crossover are already upon us. Love them or hate them, thanks for reading Collected Editions.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
After reading of The New Teen Titans Archives Vol 1 I felt that I needed another does of that Marv Wolfman/George Perez goodness from the 1980s. When I discovered that the remaining Archive editions are out of print and the Showcase Presents volumes haven't caught up yet, I decided to start where New Teen Titans Archives Vol 4 ends and the paperbacks begin, with New Teen Titans: Terra Incognito. Just as I was about to buy Terra Incognito, however, I chanced upon a copy of New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, and I just knew I had to pick this up. Terra Incognito may come first, but I had such distinct memories of reading just parts of Judas Contract in single issues that I couldn't pass up an opportunity to read the whole story.
The oldest Teen Titans issue I remember buying is issue 54 of Tales of the Teen Titans, which had a Deathstroke on the front testifying in court with the words "The Trial of the Terminator" on the cover. The story title was "Blind Justice" where Slade is on trial for the murder of Tara Markov or the kidnapping of the Titans or something ... I was a kid then, and I forget easily.
What was odder is that it began with a simple courtroom trial, and ended with an attempt by the Changeling to prove that Slade is innocent of a crime committed while there's another Terminator on the prowl. Changeling goes so as to use Steve Dayton's Mento helmet to prove Slade's innocence, all so Slade doesn't go to jail so Changeling can kill Slade himself to avenge Terra. Twisted? You bet!
The issue that follows, "Shades of Grey," is probably the best coming of age stories I've ever read, and to a reader who had missed previous issues, made the past comparatively clearer. When I chanced upon a single issue with the words "The Judas Contract Part 1," I realized, "This is it." But that was the end of it. I couldn't find any more single issues, and trade collections weren't available, at least in India.
Nowadays, however, I was lucky enough to find Judas Contract just waiting in my local comics shop. The book collects New Teen Titans #39 and 40, and Tales of the Teen Titans #41-44 and Annual #3.
When I began reading these issues in order I was shocked. I had assumed that the fact that Tara Markov or Terra, whom the Titans brought into their midst recently, would be revealed as the traitor in the final issue of the arc. This is revealed to the Titans later in the arc but to the readers in the very first issue.
The first issue sees Kid Flash resigning, while Robin stepping out of the Batman's shadow and taking the first steps to becoming his own man. The following issues have little to do with the overall storyline, featuring the villain Brother Blood, but I'm glad they're collected here. As Wolfman and Perez didn't create this story necessarily intending it for a trade collection, much of it reads as an ongoing should, with plot threads dangling from every issue. Some get resolved over a period of time, while some do not, as was the fashion then.
Here are some other things I noticed while reading the volume:
- The story remains very compelling, despite that the reader knows about Terra's treachery from the beginning.
- No covers are included, and the chapter breaks are montage images. These days I think what we would see would be the covers.
- Part of me feels that they could have included a few issues more in Judas Contract, as I don't think they're going to publish a separate trade of "The Trial of The Terminator" [but with the Omnibus editions, you might get your wish. -- ed.]. They are charging $19.99 for newsprint paperback containing eight issues worth . . . come to think of it that's not as bad a price point as The Question or 52 Aftermath.
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Monday, December 20, 2010
You know what I get sick of hearing? I get sick of hearing that in the 1990s, comics sucked. The comics YOU might have read in the 90s may have sucked, but I was mostly reading DC comics for that decade. Back then, DC wasn’t the creative wasteland that many like to characterize it as, it was actually a time of new ideas and exciting stories. Just consider these pieces of evidence:
* Mark Waid reinvigorated the Flash book turning Wally West from an also-ran into a fan favorite
* James Robinson’s Starman breaks new ground in character based story-telling and almost single handily revives interest in the JSA
* John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake shatter the pre-conception that no one can tell a long-form story about the Spectre
* Grant Morrison embraced the concept of widescreen story-telling and combined it with everything great about the Silver Age
* Chuck Dixon made the extended Bat-family his personal playground
So I really want to talk about Chuck Dixon today. Chuck Dixon became a central creator in the Bat-office in the 1990’s beginning around the time of Knightfall with his creation of Bane. From that time on he was incredibly prolific, simultaneously being the main writer behind Robin, creating and writing the Birds of Prey, handing the first seventy issues of the Nightwing solo book, having a few stints on Batgirl and Catwoman, becoming the regular Detective Comics writer and taking over Green Arrow after Mike Grell’s lengthy run.
He is undisputedly the benchmark writer for Tim Drake, Connor Hawke and Nightwing, to which all other writers will perpetually be compared when they tackle those characters. If you want to argue that point, then you haven’t read enough books. Gail Simone has possibly wrested Birds of Prey from Mr Dixon, but that’s the rare exception. It’s testament to how fondly these books are remembered that the trades that exist of his runs are mostly out of print, very pricey and highly sought after.
This brings me to the subject of the five part crossover “Brotherhood of the Fist” -- a white-hot pure distillation of everything great about Chuck Dixon’s DC work in the 90s. I’m calling it a Green Arrow trade that never was, but it could easily have been branded as a Batman, Nightwing or Robin book by the mere inclusion of an additional chapter. The story is told over these five issues:
Part 1 – Green Arrow #134
Part 2 – Detective Comics #723
Part 3 – Robin #55
Part 4 – Nightwing #23
Part 5 – Green Arrow #135
For those of you who have the DC trade paperback timeline tattooed on your back, this story falls after Cataclysm but before the debut of the Cassandra Cain Batgirl in No Man’s Land.
The back story of this crossover is that Connor Hawke has previously defeated and shamed a fighter called The Silver Monkey. Silver Monkey belongs to an order of martial artists The Brotherhood of the Fist who wish to avenge his impugned honor by declaring war on the new Green Arrow and every other distinguished hand to hand combatant in the world. That puts targets on the backs of everyone from Batman to the Question [Vic Sage is in this story? Cool; did not remember that. -- ed]. Game on.
The story opens with Connor encountering Batman in the Alaskan wilds on the trail of a Kobra terrorist cell. They’re not exactly buddies, as Batman puts Connor in his place with “Your saves with the JLA could have been flukes.” Pretty soon things are exploding and the major stirrings in the martial arts underworld are spilling everywhere.
The story whips around the globe showing us hordes of monkey-masked assassins attacking all the major and minor players, such as Katana, Black Canary, Bronze Tiger, Judomaster, Nightwing and Robin. This sets off a variety of missions and team ups as the heroes try to protect each other and shut down the cult at the source. There’s fun to be had as the cult is made up of different schools of martial arts, in various quantities with different skill levels -- jade, steel, bamboo and iron monkeys are all represented. The harder the style, the less proponents, and the thinking behind each is delightfully non-western as Connor observes “Ivory is strong but brittle, bamboo is strong but flexible.”
The story includes some nicely understated nods to continuity as Black Canary’s team up with Bronze Tiger prompts discussion of the mysterious Oracle who assisted the Suicide Squad on missions, and is now working with Black Canary (in the days before Black Canary knew Oracle's identity).
It’s not just all kung fu -- we also get to see some "gun fu" too as Connor’s ex-CIA sidekick Eddie Fyers [longtime Green Arrow Oliver Queen ally -- ed.] takes the fight to the Monkey’s hidden temple in Burma and finds himself up against a familiar one-eyed mercenary.
The story builds towards a Gotham City showdown in a sideways sky-scraper (thank you Cataclysm!) as Connor and the Bat-family find themselves outnumbered by hordes of fighters, and inevitably the always-deadly Lady Shiva appears. Faces are kicked, necks are snapped, respect is earned and debts are cashed in. The resolution returns things to relative normality for our heroes, but the martial arts pecking order has been re-sorted.
Art-wise, each title has its own artist, with pre-Daredevil’s Alex Maleev putting in a robust showing in Detective Comics, Will Rosado contributing strongly to Robin, Scott McDaniel providing his usual delightfully dynamic Nightwing art and the always reliable Doug Braithwaite providing the pencils for Green Arrow. All artists have a confident approach to story-telling and they each make the action clear and easy to follow.
While it’s not Watchmen, "Brotherhood of the Fist" is undiluted fun, with no slow or flat spots. It would have made a great little trade paperback, fitting snugly on the shelf amidst the Dixon Nightwing run. I recently saw a bundled set cheap in a local comic shop. You might also be as lucky in your country or through the magic of the internet.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
The two stories collected here, "Blackest Knight" and "Batman vs. Robin," explore on one hand Dick Grayson's desperate attempt to resurrect his mentor, and on the other hand Damian Wayne's real affection for Dick and for his role as Robin. Both stories are about Robins, past and present, clinging to their mentors; the latter, however, is the more surprising in that I hadn't expected Damian to actually like being Robin.
In the advertising for Batman vs. Robin, I guessed Damian would be mislead by his mother Talia or otherwise believe himself smarter than Dick Grayson and try to overcome him. I didn't expect a story where Damian renounces his mother for Dick, and is then forced to fight Dick against his will. Morrison does well adding to the tragedy of the scene in that Damian is conscious and knows he's attacking Dick even as he doesn't want to. I found it interesting that Damian expresses concern about the potential return of Bruce Wayne, in that it might mean he and Dick would no longer be Batman and Robin; we didn't see Bruce interact with Damian all that much, but it's interesting that Damian seems to relate to Dick better, perhaps because there's less than in teaming with "the" original Batman.
To an extent, however, the "Batman vs. Robin" chapters are not a story so much as an extended trailer describing the Wayne family history that one will encounter in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. "Blackest Knight" is not much of a story either (as compared to Batman and Robin's initial outing versus Professor Pyg and his circus of freaks); it does guest-star Greg Rucka's Batwoman, which is always a plus, but the story of the heroes solving a Religion of Crime prophecy is too much like Rucka's Batwoman and Question storylines. Maybe the potential for Bruce Wayne's Lazarus Pit resurrection held more cache for single issue readers, when Return of Bruce Wayne wasn't just around the corner, but I wasn't so much moved by the plot as I was interested in the little bits Morrison sets out about the characters.
That is, in addition to what we learn about Damian, I was thrilled to see Dick Grayson fail miserably in "Blackest Knight." Here Dick has hidden away Bruce Wayne's corpse, travels around the world to drop it into a Lazarus Pit (never a good idea, and something he's previously warned others not to do), ends up unleashing a mad Batman clone, and nearly gets Damian and Alfred killed in the process. For all the years we've read "perfect" Batman, even written by Grant Morrison himself, this is a welcome change; and Morrison even dispenses with any recriminations, either. In the absence of Bruce Wayne, the Batman title lacks the kind of overbearing presence it used to have, where if Nighting or Robin took a flyer, Batman was there at the end to tell them they did wrong; I appreciate the madcap and experimental feel Batman and Robin has now, with a Batman who can "do wrong."
There's no doubt much to be made at the end of this book about the burgeoning connections Grant Morrison's Batman run has to Peter Milligan's story "Dark Knight, Dark City" from Batman #452-454, or about the revelation that normal, plain-talking Oberon Sexton is actually the Joker (my guess, Joker didn't know who he was until he lost the mask, either). I am more taken by the possibility that all of this -- Dr. Hurt, the Black Glove -- may be people Batman meets in the past, and that their attack on him was so mysterious because Batman hadn't met them before, but they had met him. Morrison wrote one of my all-time favorite superhero time-travel stories, JLA: Rock of Ages, and if what's coming up in the Bat-books has that kind of Rock of Ages magic, I'm all for it.
Batman vs. Robin is not as edgy as Batman Reborn, as if even Morrison knows the real attention is on Return of Bruce Wayne, but it is an action-packed superhero story. Batman vs. Robin is still a "thinker" -- I had to read some pages of Dick Grayson in Britain twice to fully grasp what was going on -- but not like Batman Reborn or Batman RIP, and in that way Batman vs. Robin reminded me of more of Morrison's JLA work; not so cerebral all the time, and instead just good comics.
I'm in for the next volume, of course, and then maybe I'll give Peter Tomasi's run on the book a try. I was going to jump ship along with Grant Morrison, but if Tomasi examines what it means to be a Batman or a Robin as Morrison does here, that's something I'd keep an eye on.
[Contains full covers, copious notes by Grant Morrison (deluxe hardcover). Printed on glossy paper.]
Some great guest reviews coming next week, including another of our "Uncollected Editions" features and a review of a perennial DC favorite. Don't miss it!
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
* JLA: The Obsidian Age
Joe Kelly wrote JLA third after Grant Morrison and Mark Waid, and his run didn't receive nearly the attention that the others did, despite overall good quality and a nice emphasis on the Martian Manhunter -- not to mention art by Doug Mahnke, later of Final Crisis and Blackest Night: Green Lantern. In The Obsidian Age, Kelly perfectly captures the tone of Morrison's earlier work with a time-spanning tale that follows the JLA searching for the missing Aquaman in the past (after Superman: Our Worlds at War) and a group of substitute heroes sitting in for the JLA in the present. The conclusion is a rolicking era-spanning epic worthy of the name JLA; this is one of my favorite stories of this group's particular incarnation.
* JLA: Year One
I'm still waiting for DC Comics to release a hardcover version of this book and its sequel, Green Lantern and the Flash: The Brave and the Bold; both certainly deserve it. This twelve-issue series by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson looks at the formation of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Justice League (with Black Canary taking Wonder Woman's historic role). Waid treats the Leaguers as twentysomethings finding their place in the world; this "young-ish Justice League" approach allows for a greater emphasis on how the Leaguer's personalities intersect -- particularly the brash Hal Jordan and quiet Barry Allen, and Black Canary's reaction to both after she learns of her mother's infidelity (revealed in the pages of Starman). I love the twist three-fourths of the way through the book that temporarily breaks up the League; though largely out of continuity now, this remains a great Justice League character piece.
* JLA: Rock of Ages
My second favorite story from the JLA title is Rock of Ages, the concluding storyline from JLA's first year. I find writer Grant Morrison's actual JLA conclusion, World War III, a bit too scattered, with a conclusion that's more theme than plot; Rock of Ages is another time-travel tale that starts with a simple League/Injustice League fight and explodes into a fight to defeat Darkseid in the future. At the time Morrison wrote Rock of Ages, his cast of characters was hamstrung by the Electric Blue Superman and a Wonder Woman killed before the Genesis crossover, yet Morrison still finds a way to include the entire JLA cast plus Green Arrow Connor Hawke, the Atom, and others. To me, Rock of Ages exemplifies the Grant Morrison widescreen JLA era.
* Superman: Panic in the Sky
I've mentioned before that one of my favorite Justice League eras -- passionately and inexplicably -- is the Dan Jurgens era that followed Justice League International's "Breakdowns." Maybe it's because Jurgen's Justice League seemed the perfect distillation of the best of Justice League International -- Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and Guy Gardner -- or maybe because, between Maxima's presence and the Doomsday crossover, that League served as almost a fifth Superman title for a while.
Irrespective, Superman: Panic in the Sky is a lead-in to that Justice League run, guest-starring almost the whole DC Universe to help Superman fight Brainiac in space. This was the storyline in which the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman took his place as the leader of the DC Universe, and I counted it as among my top favorite Superman stories, too.
I am not as familiar with Marvel characters, the Avengers especially, as I am with the Justice League, so JLA/Avengers could have been hit or miss for me. Kurt Busiek's story, however, could just as easily be called JLA! for the amount of Justice League history and nostalgia Busiek packs into these pages. Every Justice Leaguer in every costume they ever wore appears in these pages (I'm pretty sure), so if you ever had a favorite Justice League era, it gets a nod within. Added to that, JLA/Avengers dials back from the Morrison/Kelly-era Justice League all the way to the original seven, and we get a chance to spend time with Hal Jordan and Barry Allen as they consider their future fates. This is a super Justice League story, even if you're not sure about those other guys.
* JLA: American Dreams
After Rock of Ages, my favorite Morrison-era JLA collection is American Dreams. What's not to love about the three stories collected in this book -- one, a Justice League membership drive; two, a team-up with the angel Zauriel, whom Aquaman refers to as the then-deceased Hawkman Katar Hol; and three, Green Arrow's son Connor Hawke taking on the villainous Key and saving the entire Justice League. Each of these three stories has in common that Morrison delves into the rich history of the League -- missing members, heroic legacies -- and the stories are not so cerebral as Morrison's later work. I don't want to spoil much, but there are nice touches in these stories that give me chills every time.
* Identity Crisis
Oh yes, I know how controversial Identity Crisis is. And I know it doesn't portray the Justice League in some of their finer moments. But I love Brad Meltzer's idea of a League within the League, and Booster, Beetle, Fire, and Ice seem as much to me the core of the international League as Green Lantern, Flash, Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Hawkman do of that earlier League. This is, to an extent, also the League featured in JLA: Year One, and there's a way in which Identity Crisis can be read as a bookend to that earlier story. Whether Meltzer's changes were right or wrong, when I think of League stories, I think of Identity Crisis.
* Booster Gold: Blue and Gold
This is not, I grant, a real official Justice League story, but in the days when Ted Kord had just died and Ice had just been resurrected, Geoff Johns and Dan Jurgens presented this time-traveling tale that not only reunited my aforementioned favorite Justice League Internationalers (living and dead), but it also included a sub-League made up of heroes including Wild Dog (!) and Pantha (!!). I'm a sucker for time-travel stories, and I'm a sucker for Dan Jurgens drawing the Justice League, so this one made my list.
* Justice League of America: The Tornado's Path
What I like about Tornado's Path boils down to the scene in which Red Tornado remembers first meeting his wife Kathy, and the flashback reprints actual panels from a Justice League story in 1973. For a number of years, likely due to widespread continuity confusion, there wasn't much reference in the Justice League titles to the team's creation or early adventures; Meltzer changes that with this scene and also in Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman's recruitment drive. Plus, Tornado's Path returns Black Lightning to the Justice League and gives Justice League Detroit some credit; all in all I thought this was a good start to the new League, even if the title has faltered since then.
* I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League
I am not, as a matter of fact, all that versed in the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League (though I know Kooey Kooey Kooey was an island), but I do have a strong affection for the characters (as this list is pointing out even to me). Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire re-teamed for a miniseries called Formerly Known as the Justice League, and then the I Can't Believe story followed in JLA Classified. Of the two, maybe Formerly is the funnier, but I Can't Believe is equally funny and also pretty emotional, especially when it comes to Fire and Guy having to come to grips with Ice's death, and then trying to rescue Ice from the depths of Hell. Maybe Justice League: Generation Lost makes this all moot now, but in the absence of a series starring Booster, Beetle, Fire, and Guy at the time, I found this book completely captivating.
And that's my desert island ten Justice League stories. I know I've left a lot out -- Elseworlds, for one, plus Justice League: New Frontier, any of the Justice League: Crisis on Multiple Earths books, and even Death of Superman was on my longer list but got cut. So, what's your ten favorite Justice League stories?
Monday, December 13, 2010
While I believe we understood in Jeph Loeb's twelve-issue Hush that Tommy Elliott blames Bruce Wayne for the fact that Elliott's parents didn't die tragically as Bruce's did, much of the background on Hush's childhood is all Paul Dini's, including Hush's relationship with Peyton Riley, the new Ventriloquist that Dini created. Whereas in Hush, Loeb's villain remained mainly behind the scenes and used Batman's other enemies for his attack, Dini's Hush is not only central here, but brings with him minions, any army of Gotham's homeless and deranged dressed up like hospital orderlies.
Put another way, with Loeb Hush was an adversary, but with Dini Hush becomes a theme villain, like Two-Face or the Calendar Man, and I've venture that thematicism posits him as a more traditional Batman villain than ever before. In Loeb's Hush (which I enjoyed), I'm unsure the purpose of the bandaged around Hush's face, aside from obfuscating whether Hush was Jason Todd; in Heart of Hush, Dini makes hospitals part of Tommy Elliott's overarching psychosis, from his enfeebled mother to his near-crushed dreams of medical school, and from the violent procedures he performs on himself to the surgical nature of the crimes he commits. Dini, to an extent, gives the Geoff Johns treatment to Hush, in that the character's outward crimes are a reflection of his inward trauma; even Hush's name, now, comes from the demonic whispers of his mother.
I have elsewhere become bored with DC Comics's heroes and villains always having long-time connections. The concept is fine in general, but when Hal Jordan used to be Sinestro's friend and Lex Luthor grew up with Clark Kent and Professor Zoom has tortured Barry Allen since he was a child, it gets repetitive; I do, however, like Hush's deepened background quite a lot. Batman stories sometimes have a tendency to focus on Batman's supporting cast because the story at its core doesn't require Batman to be there; Heart of Hush uses well the fact that Tommy Elliott knew Bruce Wayne as a child, and therefore Tommy can reach through all the trappings of Batman (as in the great scene in the Batcave) and interact with Bruce really on the most personal of levels.
There's a greater emphasis on Hush than on Batman in this story than, say, on the Black Glove versus Batman in Batman R.I.P. Still, Dini includes some Batman scenes that -- knowing how long Dini has loved and written Batman -- I imagine he's waited a long time to write. One is the aforementioned Batcave scene, where Batman attacks Hush with the Batcave dinosaur, and the climactic battle takes place on the Whirly-Bat helicopter. This is zany fun somewhat out of place in Heart of Hush (as when Hush notes that Batman actually owns a whale!), but it nicely smacks of the dark humor Dini interjected into the Batman cartoons.
Another is some of the final scenes Dini writes between Batman and Catwoman, in which he gets to state definitively that Catwoman is the love of Batman's life. Potentially Dini had to grit his teeth as he wrote that ending, knowing what a big fan Dini is of Zatanna, but he puts a good cap on that relationship here, and affirms outright Batman's affection for Catwoman -- not that it's been a secret, but such a blatant discussion was probably long overdue. Heart of Hush is not really a sequel to Loeb's Hush, but it is fitting that the newest iteration of the Batman/Catwoman relationship that blossomed there should be addressed here as well.
The Batman R.I.P.. title is plastered at the beginning of every chapter of Heart of Hush, but the connections between the two stories are spare. Presumably Heart of Hush takes place between the end of Batman: The Black Glove and the beginning of R.I.P., but one would have to tilt their head and squint to believe such (standard comics suspension of disbelief notwithstanding). Dini or artist Dustin Nguyen -- whose artist is gorgeously moody throughout the book -- also miss the look of Grant Morrison's "new Joker" when Joker appears in the story, sans bullet hole and scars. Heart of Hush factors in to later aspects of the Batman Reborn stories, but I'll say absolutely here that one does not need to read Heart of Hush to read Batman R.I.P. and vice-versa.
Batman: Heart of Hush is a good, solid Batman story by Paul Dini, no less than what we've come to expect from the writer. It is not a triumph, in my opinion -- the conclusion, in particular, has neither the edge-of-your-seat bang of Batman R.I.P. nor of the original Hush -- but I think it's certainly notable for the emphasis on the characters; in particular, Dini's is the clearest portrayal I've seen of how someone as dark and aloof as Batman can also be a romantic figure.
[Contains full covers, two pin-up pages by Dustin Nguyen. Printed on glossy paper.]
More reviews coming up. Thanks!
Thursday, December 09, 2010
Covers are far from the most reliable way to tell what's going to happen in a given issue. At times their purpose isn't much more than to look pretty, but sometimes they get it right. This is one of those occasions. Just from looking at the cover of Hulk: Skaar - Son of Hulk, it's hard not to think, "Holy crap, they painted Conan the Barbarian green" which would be a pretty accurate assumption. The high concept at play here is "What if the Hulk's son was Conan the Barbarian?"
Now, I don't know about you, but that's just awesome enough to grab my attention.
Skaar - Son of Hulk picks up not long after the events of Planet Hulk, which I have not read. The Hulk himself has already come, conquered, lost it all and gone back to Earth seeking vengeance by the time this book starts. When his wife was turned to ash in the explosion of the ship that brought him to the planet Sakaar, his sons egg survived, bouncing away, straight into a lake of fire; unbeknownst to Hulk, of course, who was so busy practicing his imitation of Ash William's "NOOOOO" that he didn't notice, despite it falling inches to the left of his knee. Some time later, the son emerges into the broken world his father left behind and, like his old man, he's usually pretty pissed off. An old mystic takes the boy -- who names himself Skaar -- under his wing and begins to guide the jade barbarian towards an ancestral power. Naturally, it's time to toss our thinly veiled Conan analogue at dragons, axemen and other foes ripe for dismemberment.
This trade is relatively simple in basic premise. The main story -- the six issues of the ongoing, not including the "Shadow Tales" backups -- is pretty straightforward, basically amounting to "there's a prophecy that this green dude is totally going to save us, so we need to get him to a place that will make him even stronger" -- not that such exactly worked the first time with Hulk himself, but then some of these guys aren't too swift, especially considering how quick they are to declare Skaar dead every time he so much as gets a hangnail.
It's more an action comic than anything else. There are no underlying themes here to pick apart or mysteries to follow along on, just a simple comic with lots of severed limbs. Whether that's the kind of thing you like or not likely depends on personal preference; if you're not down with seeing a jade giant gut a dragon, this probably isn't going to do it for you. This also isn't a trade for people who hate decompressed storytelling; the six issues of ongoing present here could probably have been cut down to three or four issues without losing anything of importance or worth.
Son of Hulk is written well enough, but it's not without its problems. For one thing, it wavers in structure quite a bit. Either the book is primarily concerned with action -- the main story is a pretty light read because of this -- or it kicks the exposition into overdrive. Many of the "Shadow Tales" backups have the latter problem. Most of the time, they are removed from the main story -- usually following this slave boy named Hiro-Kala, who I guess this book is trying to make out as important in some fashion -- and makes gratuitous use of flashbacks. The result is quite a bit of infodumping, which is a jarring pace change from the main comic; either someone is trying to convince Hiro-Kala that Hulk did more harm than good or a character is taking the time to monologue his backstory to a kid with a poisoned knife.
It's borderline ridiculous at times, especially considering the story of Hiro-Kala and Skaar intersect at no point during the course of this volume; I really think this book might have made for a smoother read had the "Shadow Tales" backups been removed from their place between issues of Skaar and spun together in the back of the book as a side story.
Another problem I had was that I came into this story cold. As I mentioned earlier, I haven't read a lick of Planet Hulk, so I wasn't exactly familiar with the trappings of the book. The first several pages are a quick recap of the important bits of the aforementioned story, so it does make a point to let you know how we got here. But for a new ongoing, it's not exactly as accessible as it should be. There are several points in the course of the story where things just went right over my head; some of the lore and events that are made reference to here are things that I assume would mean more to me had I read Planet Hulk. The story doesn't make much of an effort to explain any of it either. It's not always necessary for a new ongoing to explain everything, but when you're playing off the sort of backstory that Son of Hulk does, it's best to re-introduce a concept.
Working both for and against Son of Hulk is the art. It's generally nice to look at, but all too often there are storytelling gaffes or images that are difficult to suss out. For example, early in the first issue we get a splash page of the young Skaar attacking a dragon-esque creature. One arm has hold of its tongue, but figuring out what the other hand has done isn't quite so easy. It looks like he's ripped something out of the monster, but the blood trail leads back to it's eye, which shows no sign of damage, much less like part of it has been ripped out.
Another time, a priest has a goon stab a bug; but when Skaar gets pissed and attacks the goon, he passes the priest to get to the goon, which is kind of difficult to imagine considering we had literally just seen that the priest was standing just to the left of the poor sap. Other instances see Skaar have a sword one moment, it disappear the next, only to have it return. On top of all that, sometimes the linework just gets downright sketchy, especially on panels where we're zoomed out from the action.
Added to this is that many of the Shadow Priests and the red skinned characters look alike. This poses a problem, because they can seem to blend together at times. In fact, unless you pay close attention to the facial tattoos, you might be hard pressed to figure out that one of the figures we see in each "Shadow Tale" is the same person, as he is not named as Hiro-Kala for the first time until very late in the book.
On a positive note, one thing I do like about the art is that it's colorful. I admit I'm a sucker for comics with bright colors. Also of note is that while there are art screw-ups about, some of the fights seem to flow particularly well. Said fight scenes are generally easy to follow from panel to panel, which helps make up for the inconsistencies I mentioned earlier. The importance of this shouldn't really be understated, because if you're doing a comic with a lot of action, it's generally a good idea to have an artist who can tell a story with their art. Otherwise, what's the point?
[Contains full and variant covers, sketchbook section.]
As a whole package, there is good to be had in Skaar - Son of Hulk. I found I enjoyed it despite its flaws, but it's not exactly deep reading much less something I'd recommend over another book. If you read and loved Planet Hulk, you might get more out of it. For anyone else it's worth a look, but probably not a purchase. The premise of a barbarian Hulk, however, is still cool as hell regardless.
Monday, December 06, 2010
From 1999-2008, DC released the four volume New Teen Titans Archives, collecting a little over the first twenty-five issues of the 1980s Marv Wolfman/George Perez series, plus various one-shots. These were some of the first "modern era" DC Archives collections, and the stories collected were among the latest material that appeared in DC Archives. The series ended just before the stories collected in the paperbacks New Teen Titans: Terra Incognito and The Judas Contract.
All four of those volumes are out of print now, and I think it's significant -- super-significant -- that DC is re-releasing this material in a series of hardcover omnibus editions. Early reports has the first omnibus volume reprinting New Teen Titans #1-16, which is also what was in the first two volumes of the archives. This must mean DC has no plans to reprint the New Teen Titans Archives, such that the Archives format is no longer the format to read these old New Teen Titans storylines any more. The DC Archives program, in essence, is shrinking.
Now, I don't want to overstate. October saw the release of Superman Archives Vol. 8, and there have been Robin and Wonder Woman volumes this year, too, so Archives isn't dead dead. But in my opinion (with no offense meant to Archives fans), the Archives volumes have for a long time looked a bit dated, jacket design-wise, to the point that I hesitate to put them out next to my Jack Kirby Fourth World or other omnibus volumes; and this New Teen Titans Ommibus release follows similar announcements of older material -- Firestorm, Infinity, Inc., and the Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby/Green Arrow books -- that one might have otherwise at one time expected to see in Archives format.
All of that leads this fan to wonder, if DC is replacing the New Teen Titans Archives with the New Teen Titans Omnibus series, might similar replacements be on the way?
(Second, all of that leads this fan to wonder, will the New Teen Titans Omnibus series go so far as to include the later material, achieving the first-ever hardcover edition of Judas Contract? Here's hoping!)
What I think Rucka and Trautmann do effectively here is set up at the beginning a convincing conflict for Nightwing and Flamebird, and then twist it unexpectedly. All along the Kryptonian duo have hunted rogue Phantom Zone criminals, so their falling into a trap set by Jax-Ur and having to fight their way out is a reasonable enough plotline, set against Lois Lane's conflict with her father and his military war on Kryptonians.
With this established, however, the writers pause for an almost storybook chapter in which we learn about the conflict in Kryptonian mythology between Nightwing, the Flamebird, and the evil Vohc. Their roles are similar to Khufu and Chay-Ara (nee Hawkman and Hawkwoman) and their Egyptian enemy Hath-Set, in that Vohc betrays Flamebird and keeps her from loving Nightwing, and the two are infinitely reborn to fight Vohc, this time in the bodies of Chris Kent and Thaya Ak-Var.
As such, what follows is not just Chris and Thaya's fight to stop Jax-Ur's destructive giant in the guise of the Kryptonian god Rao, but also the mythical Nightwing and Flamebird entities battling Vohc in the body of Jax-Ur. The finale is wonderfully epic, with Chris having to fight his way back from the Phantom Zone for the second time, and also nicely self-aware -- when the gathered Justice Society helps Nightwing and Flamebird fight Rao, Mr. Terrific mumbles to himself that this is "just like" when the Justice Society fought Gog in Thy Kingdom Come. Rucka and Trautmann aren't reinventing the wheel here -- and even seem to recognize such -- but rather mix a familiar story with Kryptonian mythology in a way that made it feel fresh to me.
What I felt the second volume of Nightwing and Flamebird did better than the final volume of Superman: World of New Krypton was to end; rather than New Krypton's out-of-nowhere cliffhanger, Nightwing and Flamebird comes to a sufficient stopping point before Last Stand begins, and the plot is more forward-moving and less a collection of one-shots than World of New Krypton volume four. Mon-El: Man of Valor ends, too, but only by jumping well forward to after Last Stand; I didn't much appreciate those spoilers, but rather think Nightwing and Flamebird gets it just right.
As a drawback, I would venture (without having read Last Stand) that Nightwing and Flamebird's fight with Jax-Ur and Rao likely has little-to-nothing to do with the resolution of the "New Krypton" storyline, and probably could be skipped altogether. Much of World of New Krypton was the same way; Clark palling around with Adam Strange or making treaties with Jemm, Son of Saturn, didn't appear to equal much more than marking time until Last Stand. I imagine someone going from Codename Patriot to the second Mon-El volume and then to Last Stand wouldn't be too confused if you don't sweat the details; but again, I found Nightwing and Flamebird volume two to be the better story.
This book ends with a multi-part Adventure Comics back-up story by Trautmann, that follows Kryptonian spy Car-Vex having infiltrated General Lane's anti-Kryptonian army. This spotlight on reluctant criminal Car-Vex is dynamite, and echoes the best of Greg Rucka's self-doubting Question Renee Montoya in Five Books of Blood, or Trautmann's own profile of Mademoiselle Marie in Checkmate. There's a fantastic series of crosses and double-crosses in the story's pages, leading up to the bloody ending, and I only wish there'd been an opportunity for more of these "Tales of New Krypton" as the series went on. The story (if mildly over-narrated) is a credit to Trautmann, and hopefully DC has more for the writer now that the Red Circle experiment seems to be at its end.
[Contains full covers. Printed on glossy paper.]
I keep saying this, but as "New Krypton" reaches its end, I'm just very hopeful that the payoff is worth three to four years of comics that lead up to it. This is the most enthusiastic I've been about Superman comics in a while, and while I don't believe J. Michael Straczynski's Grounded is a great follow-up to "New Krypton," I'm hopeful that whatever comes next after Paul Cornell's Black Ring will capture some of the complex plotting and scope that came with the "New Krypton" series.
Thanks for reading!
Thursday, December 02, 2010
When the Collected Editions blog celebrated its fifth site anniversary this past February, one goal of mine was to take some time to consider here how the trade paperback landscape has changed even just since Collected Editions started.
At about the same time, I was fortunate to be contacted by German writer Stefan Mesch for an interview about graphic novels and the Collected Editions site for the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel. Since the summer, Stefan and I have been corresponding on a range of topics related to collecting comics; that interview is now live on Stefan Mesch's website and is scheduled to appear in Tagesspiegel later this month.
Following is an excerpt of Stefan and my larger conversation, which includes thoughts on the beginning of Collected Editions and where I see the industry headed. I hope you'll take time to read the full interview and leave comments here and on Stefan's site.
Stefan Mesch: ... I do notice that DC made some efforts to appear more diverse. But are people really happy with newer, black heroes like Jakeem Thunder or the new Firestorm? Did fans WAIT for these characters and DC created them as a reaction to a demand? And is a Latino character like Jaime Reyes a success? Or is he just window dressing; too little, too late?
CEB: The transformation of DC to the new DC Entertainment company appears to reflect Warner Brothers's recognition of DC as more than just their comic book arm, but rather as a collection of potential media properties, stemming from the increasing popularity of superhero movies, cartoons, television shows, and the like.
To that end, DC publisher Dan DiDio and others have reportedly talked about simplifying the core basis of what makes up their story universe, with the purpose of making the translation to other media easier. A telling of the origin of popular Flash Wally West must necessarily start with the fact that Wally became the Flash after the death of his uncle, Flash Barry Allen; that's a story within a story, and to translate to another media a Flash concept that matches the comic books, it's more streamlined for Barry to be the Flash -- to still tell complicated comics stories, but to reduce the characters back to their most basic elements. In about the past five or so years, readers have seen DC make this kind of simplification with Supergirl, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Flash, Hawkman, the Atom, Firestorm, and certainly more.
Unfortunately, this has the effect of removing, killing off, or otherwise marginalizing a number of characters that came along in the 1990s and 2000s -- this "back to basics" approach indeed seems a counter-weight to the opposite trend in the 1990s where mainstay characters like Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Green Arrow Oliver Queen were themselves killed off and replaced with younger heroes in the roles.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Due to the overwhelmingly wonderful response we received to the call for guest reviewers, some of these reviews you saw this past month, and some will be coming at you over the next few weeks and early next year. Great job everyone, and much thanks.
You can read a wide variety of Collected Editions guest reviews by following the "guest review" post tag.
As I mentioned in the Guest Review Month 2010 introductory post, this year's special event was sponsored by Simon & Schuster's new Pulp History series of illustrated books. Devil Dog and Shadow Knights are both in stores now, and as a thank you to the guest reviewers, Simon & Schuster is sending copies of each book to one lucky reviewer, drawn at random.
And the winner is .... (drumroll, please) ... Andrew Belcastro! Congratulations Andrew -- your books will be on their way.
Thanks again to all our guest reviewers. Coming up on Thursday, a first for Collected Editions as part of our fifth year celebration. Don't miss it!
Monday, November 29, 2010
[This guest review comes from Zach King, who blogs about movies as The Cinema King]
The best thing that I can say about Batman: Strange Apparitions is that it's iconic in many senses of the word. The worst thing I can say for it is that the whole is greater than the sum of its collected parts.I'm more than a little surprised that DC has allowed the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run of Detective Comics to fade into the mists like the ghost of Hugo Strange which haunts the pages of Strange Apparitions. There's a sequel of sorts, Dark Detective, still in print, but it's nowhere near as entertaining or significant (or even critically lauded) as the original yet out-of-print Englehart/Rogers collaboration. (The two most prominent chapters -- "The Laughing Fish" and "Sign of the Joker" -- are more readily available, in Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, among others.)
If you asked one hundred Bat-fans to list the creators who most "understood" Batman in their work, a great number would mention Englehart and Rogers; they probably wouldn't lead the pack due to more high-profile work by Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, and Grant Morrison, but Englehart and Rogers recontextualized Batman for a new generation of readers. Eschewing the kitschy 1950s and the campy '60s styles, the 1977-78 run reintroduces Batman as a detective first, with a sharp intellect and an irresistible allure that women can't resist (unfortunately for Bat-purists, his romantic scenes have nary a Neal-Adams-hairy-love-god-chest in sight). Englehart and Rogers have practically been canonized by comics fans for "saving" Batman from what he had become.
I think, though, it's time to reevaluate the position of Strange Apparitions in the Bat-library. No, I'm not out to try to pin it down continuity-wise; that's a feat I'll leave to the readers, if they so desire (but I think it's "in" since Hugo Strange's unmasking of Batman got a reference in Arkham Reborn). As a movement, the Englehart/Rogers dynamic duo is undeniably important, with a moody overtone and genius-level detective at the forefront; as a collection, Strange Apparitions reads as incredibly uneven, with formulaic plots punctuated by moments of high characterization and inventive storytelling. It's almost as though the collection were written by two different people -- oh, wait, it was.
Bafflingly, Strange Apparitions is marketed on the backs of Englehart and Rogers, yet they're only together for six of the eleven issues collected; we also get two issues written by Len Wein (with Rogers illustrating) and three issues illustrated by Walt Simonson (with Englehart writing). Structurally, this is a little jarring. The Englehart/Simonson issues are essential to the narrative, but Simonson's pencils and paneling lack the polish that Rogers would bring; conversely, Wein's Clayface issues have nothing to do with the overarching storyline (except for ephemeral references to Silver St. Cloud) and seem like a less successful version of Alan Moore's work with the same character, but Rogers's work is fine and pristine.
The highlight of the collection, of course, is the six-issue run of Detective Comics that paired Englehart with Rogers. Long-time Bat-fans unfamiliar with Strange Apparitions will be surprised how much of it feels familiar, since it's been appropriated by other Batman titles left and right; Hugo Strange's unmasking and subsequent auctioning of Batman's identity, the presence of Rupert Thorne as Gotham's resident crime boss, and the infamous "laughing fish" Joker caper were all translated (sometimes verbatim) into the fantastic Batman: The Animated Series, and the "laughing fish" stories have been collected every time the Joker's name is invoked.
These are the greatest moments in the collection; these stories read quickly and delectably, with Englehart's breakneck pacing challenged only by the absolutely gorgeous artwork by Rogers that demands you linger over the panels even as the narrative demands you move forward.
But I came to Strange Apparitions expecting eleven issues of legendary greatness, and I just didn't get it. Aside from the issues that pair Englehart and Rogers with other creators, there are two other issues that just don't feel right. In separate issues featuring the Penguin and Deadshot, Englehart and Rogers both feel like they're phoning it in; the stories are more Batman '66 than Batman '89 with an emphasis on elaborate schemes and stagey fight scenes atop gigantic typewriters. These stories are so hit-and-miss that it's difficult to believe that it's the same team throughout the middle of the collection.
The only strength of these two issues is that Englehart seems to know that the main plotline is ultimately a one-and-done, so he sprinkles in tantalizing clues toward the larger story arc at work; the ghost of Hugo Strange stalks his murderer, and the Joker lurks ominously in the shadows, laughing maniacally but ultimately unseen.
Perhaps it is precisely these moments that make the better issues in the collection a success. The Joker's appearance in "The Laughing Fish" has been teased throughout Englehart's preceding seven issues, such that his grand appearance in the copyright commissioner's office can't help but feel epic (and the iconic full-length panel filed with "HAHAHAs" doesn't hurt, either).
The collection itself is bookended by a kind of filler, but the meat of the collection is itself bookended -- this time by the two best and brightest Englehart/Rogers stories (featuring Hugo Strange and the Joker). For these two stories alone, Strange Apparitions is worth the price of admission, because when the book is closed that's what the reader takes away: the high caliber of artistry displayed in those four chapters.
That's why I say that Strange Apparitions is not a perfect collection -- because there are only a few stories in it that are as delightful as advertised. But despite a few low-quality chapters, for a few shining moments Strange Apparitions touches that Platonic ideal of what a Batman comic book should be.
[Does not contain full covers, disappointingly. Printed on non-glossy paper. For these two reasons alone, Strange Apparitions deserves a new printing.]
Thursday, November 25, 2010
The Adventures of Superboy hardcover collection from DC came out recently and I was thrilled! I had only read a few of these stories due to the fact that DC has not reprinted them before now, and was really feeling quite antsy to get them. Superboy was a mainstay favorite of mine, due in no small part to the fact his adventures were more fun and bound by the mind of a child, and not by the grown-up standards placed on him as an adult in Superman. Also, Superboy helped found my favorite team ever, the Legion of Super-Heroes!
That said, this book should have been one of my most valued collections, but it fell short. DC has decided that the hardcovers of classic Golden Age and Silver Age material should be printed on newsprint instead of a nicer, glossier or slicker paper. I know that these are not DC Archives, which are quite wonderful on their own, but when you reprint material that is available only in books from the 1940s and has not been seen in a modern reprint collection, you have a duty to make the presentation as nice as possible.
After all, DC is charging $39.99 for this book, and for only $10 more, it could have been an Archive instead. I, for one, would have been happy to purchase it as a DC Archive for $50, but that wasn't to be. Heck, if you were going to put it on low quality paper, why didn't DC print it as a DC Showcase like it was initially going to be? You must give the consumer quality if you are going to charge a quality price.
Now for the other drawback to this book: the binding is so tight that actual panels are obfuscated beyond readability! Knowing that Golden Age pages were larger than Silver Age or certainly Modern Age pages, DC should have decided to shrink the images slightly to avoid putting panels within .75 of an inch of the binding. As it is, most of the time you read Adventures of Superboy, you have to break the spine to read the words of important dialogue. In fact, it seems the writers of Superboy at the time had an edict that the third panel on a page was the primary dialogue/exposition panel and thus, all important data is in that panel.
I normally read my books and enjoy them, but I treat them like the library books I borrowed from the library when I was a kid and was told to treat them gently since they were not mine! So now as I have been purchasing these hardcovers, it really hurts me to break the binding or even push it to the limit just to read the story. I value my hardcovers just like I value my individual comics as more than just reading material, but rather as collectibles that others will want to buy or trade for. And who wants to buy books that aren't neat and have the spine looking like someone who got forty lashes!
The stories are dated but fun, and I liked the fact that they are presented in order from the first appearance in More Fun Comics #101 up until the change in title to Adventure Comics - all from the Golden Age. These are not the more science-fiction-y, young Superman versus young Lex Luthor-type Superboy stories that most readers are familiar with from the Silver Age. In these, the writers make a specific point of how a young Clark Kent showed morals and good upbringing to a generation of readers long before Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent! The style of these stories was always to entertain first, and provide moral/ethical leadership second. Personally, I enjoyed seeing Superboy play along to help a man pose as Santa Claus to give unfortunate children gifts -- it's a classic, timeless concept that many artists and writers have re-used over the past sixty-plus years.
In 2010, these kinds of stories might even seem naive, but in 1945 the goal was to teach children to be civil and not to judge people based on race, creed, or financial circumstances. In the story "Happy Birthday," for instance, Clark is going to a schoolmate's birthday party that has apparently been ruined because her father has been questioned for a crime and exonerated -- but this causes none of her schoolmates to come to the party except for Clark. Superboy decides to make this right by seeking out the inspector in charge of the case and taking him back to the classmate's houses to tell them that the girl's father was questioned by mistake and the real robber was already apprehended. All of the mothers call one another to make sure that the classmates go to the party. To top it off, the day is also Clark's unofficial birthday. Sweetly amusing, that is why this book is such a gem: it shows the distinct difference in society's innocence between 1945 to today.
Also, you won't find any villains or even characters that populated the Silver Age Superboy, with the notable exception of a very young Perry White. Perry makes an appearance in "Perry White, Cub Reporter" (originally from Adventure Comics #120). You see the future-editor of the Daily Planet get his job at the Daily Planet and how a young Clark Kent helped him do so, even though the story never actually became part of DC continuity (though it is echoed in the current Smallville mythos -- ed). Even more notable is that, though Perry is recognizable, this early Superboy's parents in this series aren't the Ma and Pa Kent we're so used to.
I can't really say I had favorite stories here, but it is a favorite era of mine. The 1930s and 1940s were a better time to be an American and to be a kid. This is a time when kids played on the river on homemade rafts and people having to go to the sheriff instead of phoning him. It's the time when doctors made housecalls and might even have performed surgery on the kitchen table, as shown in "Weather, Hurricane!" from Adventure Comics #106. There's stories here of kids making toys to sell for money for an operation in "Toytown, U.S.A." from Adventure Comics #104 and a story about careless driving in "Super Safety First" from Adventure Comics #112. That story uses the headline "Careless Driving Kills And Maims More Than War," which is interesting since it was published in 1947!
As for the issues included in this volume, they include all of the Superboy stories from More Fun Comics #101-107 and Adventure Comics #103-121. This covers almost three years of stories from DC's archives. And the work of such writers as Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger and Don Cameron along with the art of Joe Shuster, John Sikela, George Roussos and J. Winslow Mortimer bring to life this wonderful time. But the cover by Michael Cho, while evoking the time, does not really help "sell" the collection to newer readers. At a time when groundbreaking covers by Alex Ross are being done for other collections, DC used a light-hued cover of Superboy carrying a wagon with a boy, a girl and a dog in it. The color palette is a little weak, and will look washed out on the book shelf alongside your copies of the current Blackest Night collection or Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths volume.
Nonetheless, this is a book made for fans to love and admire the early work of the World's Greatest Hero. Event comics, in my opinion, are short-term excitement, but good writing is a long-term prize. The Adventures Of Superboy is that long-term prize to be read, enjoyed and re-read again for years to come.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Marvel has been putting on a good show lately of branding themselves as the lady-friendlier of the Big Two Superhero Companies, with its recent releases spotlighting female characters (the Rescue, Namora, Sif, etc. one-shots, the awkwardly named mini-series Her-oes), female independent comics creators (Girl Comics) and the upcoming Women of Marvel Omnibus. Nearly all solid efforts, some of which I've really enjoyed (Kelly Sue DeConnick is poised to become a recognized A-List writer with her upcoming run on the upcoming supervillain prison comic Osborn, and it's a conferral that's long overdue).
However, I have to confess there's a serious lack of female characters at Marvel that I'm all that interested in reading about regularly. There's lots of brooding ladies (this is Marvel, after all), eternally patient mother-sidekicks (looking at you, Sue), women who seem to bring about the apocalypse on a semi-regular basis (I wouldn't get too attached to Hope or her Generation, everybody). There's a lack of fun, funny, fully-realized distaff characters at either DC or Marvel these days. I mean, U-Go Girl's still dead, Kitty Pryde's a mute ghost and Jessica Jones has been doing the Jodie Foster "Stay away from my child" thing for the past couple of years, right?
The very reason that Jessica "The Sensational She-Hulk and Attorney-at-Law" Walters made for such a great character and ongoing title when written in the 1980s by John Byrne and again in the 2000s by Dan Slott was that both writers realized that the character's very essence has comedy gold built into it ("She's like the Incredible, Rampaging Hulk... but more ladylike!"). Slott and Byrne (and Jen) broke the third wall and made for great meta-commentary on the silliness of superhero comics. Basically, she's the only Marvel character I can see fitting in seamlessly with the Giffen/DeMatteis-era Justice League. That should tell you everything you need to know right there.
But that was then, back when mainstream in-universe superhero comics were permitted to be at all silly. Now I'm a pretty huge Fred Van Lente fan -- anybody who can write a cartoon primer to almost all philosophical thought ever (Action Philosophers) as well as a great all-ages Wolverine/Kitty Pryde team-up book (Wolverine: First Class) is aces. So it was pretty exciting news when his She-Hulk miniseries was announced initially -- it sounded like a great pairing of character and writer. Surely Van Lente could make liberal use of Walters' sense of humour and intelligence and bring us another all-time great She-Hulk story?
Except... this wasn't Jen Walters? It was apparently some alternate future daughter of the Hulk and... Thundra? I guess? My knowledge of the Hulk and his foes are pretty much limited to the ones who've appeared in the movies, or who have been mentioned in other Marvel Universe titles, so I had no idea what Thundra's deal was.
So what of the trade itself? The All-New Savage She-Hulk (TANSSH?) is written by Van Lente with art by four or five boilerplate superhero artists who draw with stiff anatomy and bland faces. Van Lente pulls off a few clever flourishes, including having TANSSH, or Lyra, travel back in time to modern-day Marvel NYC armed with a feminist-lingo-spouting reprogrammed Tamagotchi as her sidekick on a quest for the DNA (ahem) of the world's greatest "hero" Norman Osborn (then masquerading as good guy Iron Patriot during the utterly uninteresting status-quossover Dark Reign).
Lyra's grim quest to overcome the edicts of a bleak alternate world is given a shot of lightness, mercifully, when Jennifer Walters shows up and helps convince her that Osborn's team of Dark Avengers are Not Okay Dudes and Lyra totally should not have carnal knowledge of the ex-Green Goblin. Despite the fact that Lyra was created by typically fun-loving and inventive writer Jeff Parker, Lyra is basically Green Lady Cable, so it's nice that Jen is able to inject bring make with some jokes. Despite the revelation that Lyra actually loses her strength when she gets mad, the concept isn't explored to its full ironic potential. The extent to which this superpower demonstrates itself is limited to Lyra using words like "supple" and "flow" and the phrase "bend like a reed" while deploying Zen Future Kung-Fu against the Dark Avengers.
There's a back-up story featuring the second appearance of Lyra written by Paul Tobin, but it's odd that her aforementioned first appearance by Jeff Parker (Hulk: Raging Thunder) isn't included here, especially since it's heavily referenced in the roundtable discussion between Parker, Tobin and Van Lente.
The following year I was once again optimistic when Marvel published a sequel mini-series written by Parker and illustrated by Salva Espin (Wolverine: First Class, Exiles), one of the best superhero artists working today. Alas, the trade paperback's title is at least as convoluted as the plot: Hulk: Fall of the Hulks: The Savage She-Hulks. The first half of the TPB re-prints the Van Lente-written backups featuring Lyra working for an interdimensional patrol agency fighting leftover villains from Seven Soldiers of Victory (seriously!) and low-powered female versions of Hulk enemies. It is not very distinctive or good, and leads directly, albeit awkwardly, into the "Fall of the Hulks" crossover.
If you've been reading this crossover this book might make sense to you, but as I said, I am not a huge Hulk fan, particularly when the title is being masterminded by a latter-day Jeph Loeb. So I enjoyed looking at Espin's art here (until it disappeared during a She-Hulk fight with an army of Red Hulks to replaced by a bad manga imitation style). The story itself is utter confusing nonsense – something about a Red She-Hulk, who according to Wikipedia, is [spoiler redacted -- ed.] Is there any Hulk supporting character who isn't themselves a monster at this point? And if I'm right and that's the case, doesn't that defeat the original point of the Hulk's outsider status? But I digress.
There's a token attempt throughout H:FOFH:TSSH by Parker to tie up Lyra's conflicted relationship with her mother, but it's a subplot that belongs in a better/less crossover-ridden book.
From what I can tell, the Hulk line of comics seem to be in a bit of chaos despite this crossover. In addition to Incredible [green] Hulks (yes, plural) and [singular, red] Hulk there's an ongoing She-Hulks title debuting in November written not by any of the writers mentioned above, but Harrison Wilcox, a newcomer to comics, but a veteran writer of TV's Heroes.
The teaming of Lyra and Jen Walters still has terrific potential and if the pair can manage to steer clear of crossovers and if Wilcox can make the odd-couple/surrogate-mother dynamic work we might see Savage She-Hulk Lyra become a breath of fresh air in the Marvel Universe and some newfound adult responsibility for Sensational She-Hulk Jen Walters. My advice for fairweather She-Hulk fans like myself? Wait and see how the reviews for the new ongoing turn out, then maybe go back and pick up these trades to fill you in on who exactly the redheaded She-Hulk from beyond the future is.
Otherwise, hang tight for the new John Byrne run reprints coming in early 2011. Now that's some girl power.