Up Up and Away

1Well, we knew this day would come. I’m here today to sign off from The Four Color Opera and bring it to a cheerful close. Other creative pursuits beckon, and I’m happy to end this “comics diary” on a high-note. My super-sized thanks go to Open Letters Monthly for hosting while I explored, expounded upon–and occasionally got cranky about–the world of comic books. Thanks also to readers and supporters, who will still find me fairly frequently on the Open Letters table of contents.

Bye for now!


1Allow me to misremember where I first saw Russ Manning’s artwork. I’d say it was a Magnus, Robot Fighter cover–but not an original, from the 1963 Gold Key series. It would’ve been from the Valiant relaunch of the character in 1991, featuring Magnus (still dressed in the red miniskirt of a Beatles groupie) as he judo-chopped one of Isaac Asimov’s lanky shoe-shining robots to oblivion.

That wasn’t Manning either–merely an homage. His impeccably clean style first found me, I’m positive, in the pages of Nexus. This series, by Mike Baron and Steve Rude (for both First and Dark Horse Comics), boasts a panel-for-panel intricacy that is deceptively tame, gorgeously retro, and representative of sequential art at its finest.

Still not Manning himself, no. Yet Rude, like the Jack Kirby-obsessed Mike Allred, has spent his career time traveling via illustration. His work is the natural extension of Manning’s in every way–which didn’t occur to me until I finally read some Tarzan comics.

2Cleanly pulsing with mid-century allure, the pages of Tarzan in the Land That Time Forgot & The Pool of Time come from 1974. Though Manning had started drawing Tarzan in 1965 (and is known alongside Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster as one of the character’s greatest artists), these two tales weren’t published in the United States until Dark Horse released a trade paperback in 1996.

Grandly pulpy and worth the wait, these stories find Burroughs’ jungle man in treacherous terrain off the coast of South America. Helping his wasp friend Val, Tarzan searches for the missing Lya Billings, “the greatest woman athlete in the world today!” They sail to an island of steep cliffs and dreadful fog, where Lya supposedly hunts for traces her own mother.

3Once atop the cliffs, Tarzan says, “Feel it? Heat! Pouring from inland! And smells… jungle… immense… lush… fetid–!” He’s excited alright, until a pterodactyl carries him away. Val descends into the jungle alone, only to battle some wild boar. Throughout, Manning knows exactly when to trim back the dialogue and let his spectacularly balanced panels speak for themselves. The colors, by Studio SAF (whoever they are), seems right on the line between digital warmth and tropically blended magic marker.

Brisk narration soon plunges Tarzan into an arena-like tempest of saurian combat. Then, once he careens past Tyrannosaurs and Triceratops, he encounters mastodons and saber-toothed tigers (that he dispatches with a spear). This leads, of course, to the sight of neanderthals chasing a fur-clad blonde.

5When the confused Lya runs from Tarzan, back into neanderthal arms, his rescue attempt reminds us why the premise of a heroic noble savage is so breathtaking. He scoops her up and ascends into the trees, like the proto-Batman he is. But then he’s cut down and clobbered by the natives. This leads to temporary embroilment in epic tribal warfare and dino-danger. Oh, and Lya gets jerked around liberally by her golden mane.

Later, in The Pool of Time, when Tarzan and Val must once again rescue Lya from grabby weirdos, Manning offers more ambitious spreads that a young Rude probably studied often. Sorry, did I say weirdos? I meant Wieroos, a clan of bald and wrinkly bat-men, who’ve adorned their island fortress with skulls and watchtowers.

4When we learn that the Wieroos worship a time-altering deity called Luata, our hero is soon gazing into nightmarish swells of the impossible: “Strange dreams beckon with insidious talons… but Tarzan’s unshakable self-confidence, his jungle-forged oneness with nature, and his magnificent strength are as firm as a great rock in a hurricane… and the ape-man does not break!” A well-earned chest-beating follows, as does Tarzan and company’s successful escape from the deadly island.

Thankfully, Dark Horse is also reprinting Manning’s original Tarzan run in hardcover volumes. His honest, fluid style, built around love for his own influences, is still felt in comics today (in titles with razor sharp lines and perfect anatomy). To think I almost missed him, as I swing through the funny-book jungles.

Forging Heaven and Earth

5I want a Legion of Superheroes television show.

I want Chameleon, Mon El, Cosmic Boy, Triplicate Girl–and about twenty-five others–fighting super villainy in the 31st Century, on my TV, in retina-scorching resolution.

But I don’t want it now, with AMC’s genius The Walking Dead still in its stride. Not now, with Marvel Studios’ multi-phase Avengers saga cresting ever higher in theaters. No, I want the parti-colored Legion to swoop in, flight rings raised, when hack critics are once more bemoaning comic books’ supposed limits.

“Whoa–settle down there, skip! This is the best time ever to be a comic fan.”

Hate to say it, but Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are not what I want. They’re being produced by networks that are enslaved to advertisers, who enforce operation of the “Who’s Watching Right Now” model. This idea, that “ratings” matter more than long-term DVD sales and toothpaste conglomerates should dictate anything about my viewing, is like a mammoth with a million spears in its ass, limping for the shade where it can die.

2Arrow and Agents are mini versions of summer blockbusters. No thank you. I want a show, preferably from HBO, that in ten years’ time uses (by then) cheaper special effects to offer visceral Game of Thrones-style thrills. Hell, I also want Deadwood-style linguistic effervescence. And a byzantine plot that haunts your waking hours after the fact, like The Wire. Oh, and throw in the riveting characterization and set design of Mad Men.

The Walking Dead is a brilliant forerunner for the Legion not because they’re both comics, but because of how its success blossomed. For decades, zombies on film shuffled, then ran, just about everywhere. And they always finished eating the cast in under three hours. It took writer/creator Robert Kirkman to show us another, more sophisticated vision, that used comics’ extended format to plumb new dramatic depths.

Likewise, the superhero worlds presented in comics are tough to properly realize, even in the span of several films. There’s complexity, politics, and character nuance that movies don’t allow for. On the small screen, hushed, rewarding moments can build for months–like when the barn doors open on The Walking Dead–and push the story, regardless of genre, toward transcendence.

4But I know I’ve got to wait. Another pattern evident is this: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, exceeding all expectation in its scope and lavishness, whetted cross-generational appetites for mature fantasy programming. Eight to ten years later, convincing special effects are affordable to a premium cable network, and we’ve got Game of Thrones. I think that time-frame lends itself to a Legion TV show.

As it is, Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica showcased much of what might be needed (incredible space travel, planetary descents, etc). And Legion would primarily be a drama, with expensive CGI action and sets garnishing character-based stories. If and when Hollywood superhero films get too big and dumb to sustain themselves, serious television will be the best option. But what would The Legion, with five seasons (ten episodes each), look like?

Season One: it comes together slowly, from disparate corners of the settled galaxy. The United Planets maintains balance, the Science Police run Earth, and the wealthy R. J. Brande is on a business trip. Before Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad (as civilian teens) save him from an assassin, we get glimpses of their back-stories on their respective homeworlds. We also see planets like Caarg, Rimbor and Daxam, where more key Legionnaires come from. To start, Chameleon is the only member who appears non-human. Unraveling the Brande murder plot takes up most of Season One, as does the official establishment of the Legion as a peacekeeping organization with fluid membership. But we’re also introduced to characters who clearly aren’t heroes, like Emerald Empress, Tharok, and the rest of the Fatal Five. We should also meet Klingon stand-ins, the Khunds.

3Season Two: the emergence of the Fatal Five as a swift, multi-planet terrorist group has the public calling the purpose of the Legion into question. This is where we invoke the 21st Century as a golden age of superheroes (and an epic montage can show the “Big Seven” Justice League in action without needing specific actors). While politics on Earth and within the United Planets turn toxic, the Legion is reluctantly allowed to expand and deal with the Fatal Five. But something even worse simmers in dark cosmic backwaters. We should also now meet the eery and awful Dominators, caste-worshiping aliens with designs on all of civilized space. Then, a cliffhanger revealing razed planets.

Season Three: The Great Darkness saga, in which cosmic despot Darkseid enslaves an entire race of super-people (the Daxamites) and establishes widespread misery. The show by now should fold its own dozen plot threads into the basic outline of the brilliant Paul Levitz/Keith Giffen story. The Legion wins in the end, but they’re used up, forced to disband and leave civilized space to the Khunds and Dominators.

1Season Four: five years later, settled space is ruled by the Dominators. In general, there’s a shallow, sickly taint to life, marked by rampant consumerism and a return to superstition. The Legionnaires are back on their respective worlds, some getting back to normal life, others wishing they could do something. On the Sorcerer’s World, we meet a cranky though charismatic ruler named Mordru. He also wants the Dominators ousted, but for his own reasons. He watches carefully as Legionniares drift back together, this time to work as a guerrilla force against fascist overlords. Mordru seeks an alliance and helps get the Dominators off of Earth. Then, when the Legion finds out that Earth’s core has been damaged by the aliens’ secret tinkering, Mordru stands by and does nothing. Cliffhanger: three cities fall into sinkholes.

Season Five: the Legion scrambles to get cities under domes and into orbit before the Earth explodes. By mid-season, they’ve done so, and the unthinkable happens. Now, all that remains of the “mother planet” floats as a constellation of bubble cities. As Mordru expands his reach, gobbling up territories, a hooded figure called the Time Trapper arrives. He scolds Mordru for altering billions of fates–before destroying him– and then sets his gaze upon the Legion. Mon El leads a group of Legionnaires to fight this new villain to the death, and the show ends with their “sacrifice.”

Which, of course, would pave the way for Legion Lost.

Make it happen, DC.

Symphony in Stone

1Don’t let the cover’s lethargic poses and crappy Hollywood logo fool you. Batman: The Scottish Connection is a superb graphic novel that showcases the transporting talents of artist Frank Quitely. From 1999, this brisk mystery (by Knightfall writer Alan Grant) had been out of print for years. It now lives in the Batman International trade paperback (2010), and contains some of comics’ rarest visual delights.

It helps that Quitely is from Scotland. His illustrations of rolling countryside and the ornate stonework of walls and castles are miraculous. And nowhere else in his body of work will you find both in such entrancing abundance–though a few issues of New X-Men are equally gorgeous.

2The tale begins on the Isle of Skye, where Bruce Wayne watches the embalmed heart of his ancestor, Sir Gaweyne de Weyne, rejoin the crusading knight’s further remains. After paying his respects (and charmingly brushing off the press), Bruce notices that other slabs of gravestone have conspicuously broken corners–the questioning of which annoys the site’s custodian. We, of course, notice the hyper-rendered bricks and emerald landscape, conveying the lushest sense of place.

This sense–and Quitely’s skill in transporting us–only increase throughout the adventure. Batman returns to the graves at night and encounters three goons with long-handled mallets (if I’ve any quibble against The Scottish Connection, it’s that these men are somehow a match for Batman–unless we agree that he’s pulling punches). Slanted panels, long shadows under a full moon, and extremely detailed choreography make this scene one for the textbooks; hardly ever do we see Batman making such a clean effort to manipulate his cape during a fight.

4The scene is interrupted by a woman named Sheona and her two barn owls. She tells Batman about a centuries-old blood feud between two Scottish clans, though her best line is: “Animals don’t lie and cheat and scheme the way people do.” The narrative continues when Wayne and butler Alfred survive a car chase through the sumptuous hills of Scotland. It’s soundly amazing, but quickly eclipsed by the chapel scene that follows; again Quitely gives us one version of the “symphony in stone” by day, and an exquisitely surreal version by night.

We also meet Fergus Slith here, the man warring against the descendants of those who sequestered his people on a doomed plague ship. He wears a mask carved with boils, honoring his dead, and possesses an ancient Templar treasure (a crystal and paper mandala) that transforms normal men into the super-strong assassin Azrael.

3Azrael, a bastardized vigilante who emerged from Knightfall, never actually appears in his orange and black costume, but seeing Quitely’s rendition would’ve been a treat. Instead, we get a foiled train hijacking and the bombing of a castle (via helicopter), both spectacular for their scope and energy.

Today, visually ambitious tales like The Scottish Connection are usually released as one-shots, annual issues, or oversized hardcovers. This nearly lost treasure belongs in the front of a gigantic “Absolute Frank Quitely” volume, should DC ever see fit to create one.

Major ‘Tude Adjustment

1Today, from the “How-Can-This-Be-Good?” file, we have Marvel’s 2007 miniseries Penance: Relentless. It spins out of the repulsively executed Civil War storyline, and stars former New Warriors mascot Robbie Baldwin. Surprisingly, despite the Clive Barker costume made of leather straps and spikes, Baldwin fascinates in this darker persona (though writer Paul Jenkins and artist Paul Gulacy should get the credit).

Sigh. Where did it all go wrong? Let’s first revisit the early 90s (an awkward comfort zone for me, I know), and witness the teen New Warriors fight street level crime–with major ‘tude! Among badasses like Night Thrasher and Nova, there was Speedball, a bright and shiny goof who could manipulate kinetic energy and bounce around.

3By the mid-2000s, all of the New Warriors had been demoted to court jesters for the Marvel Universe (their 2005 miniseries lacks the dignity of the worst Teen Titans Go! episode). Until, that is, they blew up a chunk of Connecticut while filming their reality show. This resulted in Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, and Captain American (as well as everyone else) going to war over the passage of a Superhero Registration act, which forced all costumed heroes to either work for the government or go to jail.

Speedball, while tussling with the combustible villain Nitro, directly caused the explosion in Stamford, CN, which killed 612 civilians. Now, as Penance, Baldwin nurtures his monstrous sense of guilt in a costume that cuts the wearer while he stands, walks–and yes–engages in superhuman battle.

During this pre-Disney era, the Marvel Universe built to a gloriously evil crescendo; Norman Osborn (Spider-Man nemesis the Green Goblin) ended up in charge of world police agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and all its technological wonders. But at this point in the mega-story, Osborn is merely in charge of the Thunderbolts program, which keeps murderous psychos like Venom and the Swordsman on short leashes.

2Relentless finds Penance as a reluctant, moody member of the Thunderbolts, routinely subject to psychological evaluations and skirmishes with unregistered vigilantes. Jenkins, who demystified Wolverine’s earliest years in Origin, helps Penance track Nitro for a cathartic throw-down. His dialogue, especially for the despicable Osborn, is stellar: “If Penance and his schoolyard pals hadn’t been so hungry for attention we’d still have six hundred extra breeders feeding the economy.” Later encounters with Dr. Doom, Tony Stark and Wolverine feature equally spot-on characterizations that make you wish Jenkins got more regular work at Marvel.

Gulacy, meanwhile, illustrates this high-tension tale with a superb sense of dread. Working since the 70s (primarily on kung-fu titles and Batman), he’s got an unconventional style that places slanted, Frankenstein-looking figures in gorgeously detailed surroundings. He follows artist Mike Deodato in drawing Osborn as Tommy Lee Jones, and likewise presents Baldwin, Susan Richards (of the Fantastic Four), and Tony Stark in occasionally brilliant portraits.

4His drafting feats similarly outshine the on-paper sketch of what to expect from this series. When Penance confronts Dr. Doom about handing over the imprisoned Nitro, the courtyard battle in wintry Latveria is astonishing. Colorist Rain Beredo adds welcome texture to mountains, bricks, and of course our cast’s sweaty faces, stippled in shadow when close-up.

The trade paperback for this series, devoid of the billions of ads Marvel crammed into the comic issues, is ten bucks well spent. It also, word for word, puts Civil War itself to shame.

The Eggs That Never Hatched

1I’m an Alien 3 apologist. I love David Fincher’s twitchy 1992 follow up to James Cameron’s epic Aliens (1986), despite its numerous flaws (scaled-down production, awful-looking puppetry, confusing chase sequences, and hyper-edited death scenes).

I also love that Dark Horse had been producing amazing Aliens comics–eminently worth filming–throughout the late 1980s and early 90s. This means that while 20th Century Fox struggled to keep writers, producers and directors on the cursed Alien 3, including creature designer H. R. Giger himself, a whole new narrative branch sprouted on paper.

Written by Mark Verheiden (Battlestar Galactica), illustrated by Mark Nelson, Den Beauvais, and Sam Keith, the original Aliens series of comics exists today in a compact omnibus. It picks up exactly where Cameron’s film left off, with Ripley, Hicks, and Newt back on Earth, coping with the insanity they found on the colonized LV 426.

2Except that here, Hicks is named Wilks, Newt is Billie, and Ripley doesn’t appear until the end of the second act. These changes accommodate the alternate Alien 3 continuity, where Hicks and Billie die in a crash, which most fans find galling. Dark Horse’s trilogy of mini-series offers everything Fox’s third film should have: larger set pieces, higher stakes, and the reverential treatment of characters we love.

3Verheiden’s saga begins on Earth, with Billie in a psych ward, Wilks a drunken disgrace, and Ripley nowhere to be seen. When footage from a cargo carrier reveals an alien murdering the crew, Wilks is dragooned into leading a retrieval team to the creatures’ “home world” (take that, Prometheus). For the sake of closure, he visits Billie, who begs to go along. The emotional outpouring gets her tranquilized and dragged away, but Hicks rescues her later, knowing well the need to face one’s nightmares.

Much more of this tale, including a religious cult worshiping the aliens, marks it essential to the mythos. The cult, led by the lunatic Salvaje, unleash the “bugs” on Earth. There’s also a crazy general named Spears, who tries and fails, to lead an army of “tamed” aliens against those that have overrun terra firma (cue Ripley’s triumphant return). Oh, and someone finally has sex with an android.

4The first segment of the story, with art by Nelson, is almost all serviceable set-up. Dark Horse digital handles the broody coloring, while the panels themselves bulge with careworn, occasionally stiff figures. The aliens, though, are fabulously detailed, even in Beauvais’ garish second chapter. His painted art enlists more brightness than this fictional universe can typically use. Only the tale’s third part, drawn by Keith (The Maxx) nails the grimy, spattered atmosphere seen in the films.

So, if you’re still smarting from the alien’s shoddy treatment by Hollywood since Cameron wrapped his masterpiece, this omnibus answers many prayers. Equally satisfying is the trilogy of novels adapted from these comics: Eath Hive, Nightmare Asylum, and The Female War. They’re worth the hunt, to see what could have, should have, been committed to film.

Spandex Nouveau Heaven

1On July 30th, The Four Color Opera will be exactly a year old! Celebrating this first birthday early, I’m finally posting about my all-time favorite artist, Stuart Immonen. He is, like many Canadian superstars (Tegan, Sara, and William Shatner come to mind), a hard-working talent whose career demonstrates thrilling evolution.

I haven’t focused on him yet only because, in discussing that which moves you the most, there should be a healthy fear. If you can find the words easily, how much can you really love something? Well, I’ve plotted out the angles, and am ready to lay down some purty phrases in Stewie’s honor.

One of his first mainstream assignments was DC’s Legion of Superheroes, back in 1993. During this time, the Legion (set 1000 years in the future) sizzled on the solar-flare brilliance of writer/artist Keith Giffen, who’d relaunched the title in 1989 with a controversial twist. Five years had elapsed since the previous volume’s end, and the Legion (an interplanetary team comprised of Brainiac 5, Ultra Boy, and Duo Damsel, among many others) had been disbanded. A ruthless race known as the Dominators ruled Earth, and the known universe, governed by the United Planets, knew the savagery of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

2Giffen ended his Legion run by having the Earth’s core explode (thanks to too much buried toxic waste). Some cities collapsed into sinkholes, alerting our heroes to the impending disaster; other cities were thus saved, placed under domes and launched into space. It’s the most potent, poignant environmental statement ever delivered by a mainstream comic–period.

Tom and Mary Bierbaum, diehard Legion fans growing up, had co-plotted and written dialogue with Giffen. They continued the stories of colorist Tom McCraw, and that’s where we join Immonen. Issues 43-48 feature the villainous wizard Mordru, as he raises an army of the super-powered dead. By the standards of the day, this is fairly straightforward stuff. But because this is the Legion, tangled and tantalizing connections drawn from their decades-long history abound.

The tale opens with a page that is simply masterful. Immonen’s deft use of shadow, emotion, and texture–elements he wields with an increasingly jaw-dropping finesse throughout his career–swallows the reader whole like an orca. The redhead is Mysa Nal, formerly the White Witch of the Legion, and she’s on what’s left of the Sorcerer’s World (destroyed in the previous volume’s Magic Wars). “I can feel it calling to me,” she thinks, shifting boulders in despair. Mysa–with the help of the Justice League’s centuries-old Martian Manhunter–eventually finds the beckoning presence. It turns out to be something called Amethyst (a DC heroine from the 1980s), and it merges with Mysa, turning her hair raven and armoring her in lavender crystal.

3Immonen’s early art seems cut from the same hyper-expressive cloth as Keith Giffen, Kevin Maguire and Adam Hughes’. They all worked on Justice League in the first half of the 90s, a comic prone to run-on puns and sitcom shenanigans. But shadowy curves and believable facial expressions are all Immonen has in common with Maguire and Hughes. Since their heyday, they’ve only become slower and more deliberate craftsmen, incapable of drawing monthly titles.

In the Legion, Immonen routinely offers layouts so meticulously-balanced that you’re sure he dreams in sequential boxes. There’s even a rare instance of him honoring the nine-panel page that Giffen (and understudy Jason Pearson) used for most of his cinematic run. When Mysa confronts her former lover Mordru on Tharn, the new Sorcerer’s World, theirs is not the typical super-battle. As spells are cast, the panels themselves crack along with the stonework of castles and the psyches of each combatant. At the end of much chanting and billowing mist, Mordru absorbs Mysa, rejecting Amethyst and becoming more powerful in the process.

4Further details, including a team-up with Klingon stand-ins the Khuns against an army of super-zombies, mark this Legion tale as perfectly serviceable nerd-candy. But years later, it’s Immonen’s beautifully executed work–from rippled clothing to elfin smiles to rocky promontories–that’s continued their saga as nobly as possible.

Today, Immonen brings knock-out flavor to scripts by Brian Bendis (All New X-Men) that might otherwise go down like white rice. Likewise, his work with Warren Ellis (Nextwave), Bruce Jones (Incredible Hulk), and Matt Fraction (Fear Itself), has built comic worlds with a full-tilt sense of adventure that elevates the medium.

Immonen’s panels show me Art Nouveau sprites, wandering in woods of divine intricacy. They show me metropolitan bazaars, aglow with the exploits of figures both heroic and hermetic. They show me where I’d like to go after this life.

Mommy, Why Won’t the Bald Man Stop Talking?

1That’s the awestruck child in me, asking louder and louder each month for writer Jason Aaron to conclude his endless epic in Thor: God of Thunder.

It’s not that it isn’t well written, with poetry and action enough to outshine other runs on the character. And it definitely isn’t Esad Ribic’s spacious, ethereal artwork, which complements Thor gorgeously. It’s just that, well–this comic is somehow kinda boring.

When Marvel NOW! started, most of the relaunched titles provoked sheer wonder. Captain America, X-Men Legacy, and Young Avengers (to name a few) have creative dream teams that feel ecstatically-matched, flush with four-color-perfection. The writing strategy, especially for icons like Thor and Captain America, has been to place them in situations that exploit their finest traits. Cap, trapped for nearly a dozen issues in a hellish world ruled by evil scientist Arnim Zola, has become a beast of dogged resilience. Thor, facing the god-slayer Gorr (for nearly a dozen issues), hunts relentlessly alongside past and future versions of himself.

2It’s really only the “nearly dozen issues” part that’s putting me to sleep. Why? Because it’s so clearly a strategy to net new readers. If you come across a Marvel NOW! title, for example, as a fan of Marvel’s films, you may find yourself in the middle of a bat-shit narrative where Wolverine is dressed as a clown, enslaved by an evil circus. That’s Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men, a comic crammed with more fun, innovative ideas than ten other books.

But that story only took up a few issues. You might say, “This isn’t for me,” and move on, or, “This is cool, what’s next!” Results may vary. With Avengers icons, understandably, Marvel doesn’t want results to vary. They want to spread wide the net and leave it open as long as possible; the more new readers encountering Thor vs. Gorr, in any of the NINE issues they spend slicing into each other, the better.

3Oh, well. I grumble as only a spoiled fanboy can. Thor: God of Thunder is a lovely comic, as Aaron’s own words prove: “The war faeries of Wendigorge, the nine guardians of the Hornwold. It’s said they lived in a palace with caramelized walls, in a valley where the skies rained milk and the trees oozed honey.”

His imagination–full of concepts so awesomely impractical that they approach dream logic–is irresistibly realized by artist Ribic. Cosmic tableaus and scuffling deities, emboldened with painterly color by Ive Svorcina, are mana for the eyes.

Want to know how this battle ends now? Crack open the 1999 story The Dark Gods, written by Dan Jurgens (Death of Superman) and drawn by John Romita Jr. (Daredevil: The Man Without Fear). Thor wins.

Cosmic Technicolor

IMG021101The mid-2000s, before I craved fresh reading at every turn, were my dark ages. I hadn’t yet trained myself to try new comics, that weren’t Marvel or DC, just for the hell of it. Partially to blame must have been the deep, disastrous fall from excellence of The Authority. Money’s always a factor, too.

Around this time, I was ignoring the renaissance happening at Image. Writer Robert Kirkman, now a publishing partner, had created The Walking Dead (securing his place in history) and the sprightly, generic-seeming Invincible. I came to know his writing in Ultimate X-Men and Marvel Team-Up. The former I read out of inertia, and found the creation of a ditzy new character, around whom the rest of the X-Men orbited, seriously off-putting. The latter comic had me as long as Scott Kolins drew it, but that wouldn’t be for long.

Which brings us to the savory present. For the most part, writing about comics is fun. I’ve noticed though, the warping effect that occurs when showcasing a continuity-heavy title. The larger the payload of context, the sillier the post gets. I’ve come to love the simple beginnings of characters and worlds, which usually give me extra lyrical leeway. Invincible, then.

4Image has been releasing grand omnibus editions, and the first volume has issues 1-13, plus an extensive, entertaining sketchbook of artist Cory Walker’s designs. But the caroming life of young Mark Grayson sells itself, as we’ll see. Open the giant-sized omnibus (or trade paperback, if you’re frugal), and his first words while zooming toward us are, “Y’know, you really ruined my afternoon.”

He’s speaking to the man he carries, who’s got a bomb imbedded in his chest. They’re somewhere in the arctic, and after this rudest of men explodes, Mark dusts himself off and heads back to the suburbs. “If I keep this up I’m going to give myself a heart attack.”

2This sequence, the first slurp of Invincible sweetness, does many things. To novice and experienced comic readers alike, the clean paneling puts a come-hither finger under your chin. Once inside, you find that Cory Walker, and later Ryan Ottley, have a style as versatile as it is deceptively innocent. The bold Saturday Morning colors of Ben Crabtree, meanwhile, dash through the park, breathing stronger with every page.

Teenaged Mark, you might guess, can’t really be hurt. He’s also capable of flight and super strength (which he learns while taking out the trash at his fast food job). These powers come from his dad, the secretly alien Omni-Man. At the dinner table, as we meet the family, he and his mom patiently listen to caped exploits. “So,” she eventually asks, “how was your day, Mark?” He answers: “Fine. I think I’m finally getting superpowers.”

3Her reply, “That’s nice. Can you pass the potatoes?” is the kind of breeziness that Kirkman maintains throughout the first half of this collection. Mark and his dad also play catch by throwing a ball back and forth around the Earth. Street level heroes the Teen Team welcome him, and the athletic redhead Atom Eve is a fellow high school student (natch!). This is essentially Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s early years, with Superman’s cosmic technicolor mixed in.

Invincible is exceptionally shiny, too, like it’s the comic Image should have started with back in 1992. And like another flagship title, Ultimate Spider-Man, the all-ages issues try hard to balance fun, depth, and action. When it succeeds, Kirkman’s tale is irresistible; occasionally, however, the sight of one character speaking five paragraphs worth of dialogue is exhausting.

If, like me, you’ve gone years without exploring Invincible, I won’t reveal any more. There’s a TON of nifty surprises within, and some intense streaks of darkness that have me clawing for the next volume. In his introduction, writer Brian Bendis says, “We need 200 hundred more issues of it.”

Yes, please.

A Merry Go ‘Round

1About every ten years or so, a comic book artist of incredible vision and energy zooms through the ranks of talent to super-stardom. Currently, we have Stuart Immonen, whose inexhaustible versatility has made him the leading breadwinner in Marvel’s glowing stable. Before him, Jim Lee shaped readers’ tastes for a solid decade.

And in the early 1980s, when a young Jimbo was still lip-synching to the Thundercats theme song, we had George Perez. Starting with The Avengers in the 1970s, Perez (alongside John Byrne and Jim Starlin) defined Marvel’s cosmic era with daring, technology-dense layouts and increasingly perfect anatomy.

Then, around the time that Ronnie and Nancy started tossing solar panels off the White House roof, DC decided to respond to writer Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men zeitgeist. Perez, with writer Marv Wolfman (Tomb of Dracula), launched The New Teen Titans, which followed a group of sidekick heroes first brought together in the 1960s.

Well, half of them anyway–Robin, Donna Troy and Kid Flash we already knew (plus the green-skinned goober Beast Boy, from the Doom Patrol). But then, with the advent of compact electronics, Star Wars, and the New Age movement, we got the characters Cyborg, Starfire, and Raven. Later came the deaf teen named Jericho, who can possess the body of anyone with whom he makes eye contact.

2Let’s skip the digression about heavy, color-fast Baxter paper and multiple relaunches–and get right to how crazy Raven is. And not crazy good, kiddies. Her father, the demonic Trigon, loves nothing more than helping after helping of tasty souls. They energize him, and make lording over the many realms of his interdimensional kingdom a breeze.

In 1984′s The Terror of Trigon, Raven, typically an introverted empath, becomes a vessel for her father’s wrath on Earth. Wolfman and Perez kick themselves into apocalyptic overdrive to completely strip the Teen Titans of their sunny dispositions. First, literal storm clouds appear over the Titans’ island headquarters (a T shaped tower) and nearby New York City. This is because there’s trouble in the netherverse, where Raven dreams of Trigon’s manifestation. He’s chosen her to rule at his side, and has used up the souls of the people living in realm of Azarath to power his trip to Earth.

3Regardless of how bonkers this story sounds, it’s exactly the kind of thing Perez was born to draw. Trigon contorts his victims into monstrous stoneworks, within which individual bodies can be seen twitching en masse (the special Baxter paper allowed raw pencils, during the Azarath scenes, to print beautifully). Perez lives for drawing as many figures per panel as possible, and he delivers, with fine-lined fury, an insane amount of detail–so much in fact that the capable Romeo Tanghal had to ink all but the first two issues.

Wolfman, for his part, tortures the Titans in a Claremont-like orgy of purple narration: “She watches the column of writhing, flowing living souls and that which was Raven rejoices. Those who were her teammates are now her pawns… pawns whose minds Trigon has tapped, whose secrets spilled forth, who possessed knowledge of others like themselves with abilities far greater than any ordinary man…”

4This refers to the other DC heroes, like Superman and the Justice League, who have indeed been incapacitated. Wolfman succeeds in showing us that the Teen Titans are actually the last people with a hope of saving Earth. At the time, many writers didn’t bother with this kind of super-consistency, and it surely led to Wolfman being assigned the universe-ending ramrod that was Infinite Crisis.

In the end, the Titans defeat evil versions of themselves, then kill demonic Raven on the say-so of Lilith (Lindsey Lohan’s long lost psychic twin, who stumbles through this entire hellish story in heels). But because Raven is a creature tied more to emotional planes than physical, our heroes drag themselves up off the mat knowing a reunion isn’t impossible. When Trigon himself crumbles, the skies clear and the city resets; the merry-go-round welcomes something fresh.