Posts from May 2016

May 27th, 2016

Comics! DC’s Rebirth!

rebirth1Comics this week contained several bombshells and big events, but the one that drew my attention the most was the first issue of DC Comics’ new “Rebirth” summer event series, and it drew my attention not just because of the fan reactions popping up all over the nerdy end of the blogosphere but also because of teaser interviews and comments from DC’s own creative directors that gave me just a glimmer of hope that the rebirth2company’s massive 2011 revamp of all of its iconic characters – a revamp I’ve written about quite a bit here on Stevereads and one I consider a near-complete failure both in terms of conception and execution – that the “New 52” revamp might at long last be coming to an end.

“Rebirth” #1 certainly taunted me with something along those lines. The front cover shows the by now familiar cast of “New 52” versions of the superhero characters I grew up loving – but the back cover shows the real versions of those characters, the version that have been missing for five years (the back cover also shows the classic Justice Society of America, which the “New 52” revamp eliminated completely). It was certainly enough to get me to buy the issue.

It’s a premise-setting issue, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by half a dozen artists, and it’s central gimmick has definitely served DC well in the past: Wally West, aka Kid Flash, lost in the extra-dimensional “speed force” that is the source of his super-speed, is able to sense things the other heroes of the DC universe can’t – including the fact that a mysterious, nearly all-powerful force has been manipulating them all for years, sundering their friendships, altering rebirth3their worldviews to make everybody more ruthless and cynical.

It’s a daring move on Geoff Johns’s part, since it essentially makes the entire “New 52” continuity not only invalid but evil, the work of a super-villain. That’s a remarkable development, considering the fact that five years ago the company was entirely gung-ho about the revamp. But as Wally West narrates: “There’s going to be a war between hope and despair. Love and apathy. Faith and disbelief.”

But what gave me the most hope in this first issue wasn’t actually a part of the issue proper at all: it was a two-page spread of a house ad for the whole “Rebirth” saga and beyond, showing an even fuller cast of DC characters rushing toward the viewer … but they’re smiling. They’re brightly lit. The whole ad, magnificently drawn by Ivan Reis, just brims with optimism, of exactly the type that always made me love DC comics over Marvel – of exactly the type that’s been almost entirely missing from the “New 52.”

So needless to say, I’ll be following “Rebirth” with the veteran comics buyer’s carefully guarded expectations … but I’ll allow myself to hope.


May 1st, 2016

Comics! An Epic Run!

batmanLast week, in addition to being pleasantly surprised by the “Last Days of Superman” storyline unfolding in the DC’s various Superman comics, I was equally pleased – though not surprised – by issue #51 of Batman, a story titled “Gotham Is,” written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Greg Capullo. The reason I wasn’t surprised to be pleased by this issue is because the team of Snyder and Capullo has been delivering utterly fantastic Batman adventures since the first “New 52” issue five years ago. I’ve come to expect that this comic will be really good.

I’ve been a fan of Capullo’s artwork for a long time, since his short run on Marvel’s Quasar back in the early 1990s, and it’s been thrilling to watch him steadily improve over the years. When his run on Batman started, I was unsure how his style fit the character, but he quickly won me over. Snyder is a harder sell for me, and nothing in this long run on Batman has changed my mind. He’s great at fashioning gripping moments and single scenes, but he can’t long-term plot worth a damn, with the result that time and again in his Batman run, he plotted himself into a blind corner from which he could only extricate himself with logical contortions and absolutely massive blocks of exposition.capullo quasar

So his first arc introduces a character named Talon and then buries the reader in prose about whether or not the guy is Bruce Wayne’s long-lost brother, to the point where those readers won’t really care one way or another. Or a super-villain will gain control over a mutating virus … and then drop the ball even though on the grounds Snyder himself set out, his villain would be unbeatable. Or, in the worst possible case, he orchestrated a plot where the Joker returns, attacks the now-sprawling family of Batman’s friends and allies, has all of them entirely at his mercy, and then … doesn’t do anything to them except talk – because Snyder didn’t think out his plot past the point of its dramatic climax.

But issue #51 is a standalone thing, a self-contained story in which Batman, riding into Gotham City for his nightly patrol, sees the entire city go completely dark in a massive blackout. He and his faithful retainer Alfred immediately start looking for the reason, even as Batman speeds to Arkham Asylum in order to contain a breakout by the super-villains incarcerated there. But the prisons backup generators kick in, and, oddly enough, the rest of Gotham seems equally peaceful and orderly.

It’s a “night in the life” story, and Snyder handles it very well, making beautiful parallels with his very first issue, five years ago. And Capullo’s artwork is superb, especially in a terrific two-page spread of batman2Batman swooping over a darkened Gotham, glimpsing the lives of all the Gothamites as they make do during the blackout (they’re all oblivious to his presence, except little children, who aren’t afraid and happily wave).

I loved the issue, and it reminded me of how often I’ve loved the Snyder/Capullo run on Batman – as I pointed out five years ago, this was one of the only “New 52” titles that was an unqualified success right from the first issue. This was a fine send-off to that run, and coming up right beyond it is yet another DC re-invention. We can hope to be this lucky again.

April 27th, 2016

Comics! The Final Days of Superman!

supe5I ventured into the comics shop recently, which is something I don’t do all that often anymore, for two main reasons: first, as I’ve lamented several times here at Stevereads, the bloom of most comics went off the rose for me a few years ago when DC Comics – the mainstay of my comics world for decades – conducted a company-wide reboot of its characters and continuity, taking a broad and colorful and most especially grand tapestry of superheroes and transforming them at a stroke into a batch of grim, flak-jacketed, hateful misanthropists. These beings didn’t stand for truth, justice, and anybody’s way but their own. They punched, growled, and screwed with equal petulance; they had the names as the great characters they replaced, but their natures were completely, almost sadistically reversed from anything I grew up reading and liking.

And as evil chance would have it, my favorite DC character was one of the hardest hit. Superman has always been a source of insecurity for some comics creators – the less imaginative among those creators see his moral purity and vast array of superpowers and thought these things precluded interesting drama. The best Superman writers over the decades have seen the enormous opportunities offered by the very things that dismayed those other writers, but in “The New 52,” Superman became The Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan, only with hair. When he was talking to mere mortals, he floated a little above the ground with his arms folded across his chest. When is romantic soul was stirred, the woman in question wasn’t the thoroughly human, grounding Lois Lane but the battle-armored “New 52′ version of Wonder Woman.

In short, this version of Superman was exactly the kind of cool, monstrous supe6alternate-reality version of the character that the old Superman, the one I read for decades, would have fought, outwitted, and then banished back to his own dimension.

But old habits die hard, and I was so accustomed to reading DC comics that I more or less limped along continuing to do it, despite only very seldom actually enjoying what I was reading. Eventually I started shifting my reading to graphic novels and away from the weekly issues that kept appearing at my comics shop. And even though I’ve recently noticed DC writers gradually drifting their concepts of the characters back to their pre-New 52 incarnations, I still stayed away from buying individual issues – for the second of my two reasons: DC recently announced that the summer of 2016 will see yet another company-wide reboot, this one dubbed “Rebirth” and featuring Gawd-knows-what further changes to these characters. Buying individual issues seemed doubly like a waste of time.

supe1And yet, I missed going to my comics shop and buying individual issues! And recently, a storyline was announced spanning the whole family of Superman-related comics, a storyline said to be revolving around something called “The Super League.” It intrigued me, so I let it play out for a few installments, then I went to the comics shop and bought three or four of those installments, starting with Superman #51, which features a very dramatic cover by Mikel Janin with the legend “In the Heart of the Sun … the Super League is Forged!”

The issue opens equally dramatically: a full-page close-up of a Superman so young and pretty that the old Curt Swan/George Reeves Superman, my Superman, wouldn’t have recognized as any variation of himself. And this younger, prettier Superman says, “I’m dying.”

It turns out that several recent events in Superman’s life have combined to fatally supe2weaken his body. He’s run every kind of test he knows, and he’s certain: he’s dying, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. He sets about telling his loved ones – in this issue, he first tells Lana Lang back in Smallville, then he goes to Lois Lane, who quite simply says she’s missed “talking to my best friend every day.”

In the next installment, in DC comic that used to be called World’s Finest and is now drably called Batman/Superman, Superman goes to the Batcave and tells Batman, who protests that they have to fight it, that there must be a way to save Superman’s life. Superman assures him that there’s no hope.

The next installment I bought was the latest issue of the drably-titled Superman/Wonder Woman, with great artwork by Ed Benes. In this issue, Superman breaks the bad news to Wonder Woman. And because this “New 52” supe3version of Wonder Woman is a stupid, petty, brawling blockhead, her main concern is that Superman told Lana Lang, Lois Lang, Supergirl, and Batman before he told her. Fortunately, Superman is still healthy enough to shut her up by kissing her.

The thing that surprised me most about these three issues (I skipped an installment that mostly concentrated on Supergirl, whose New 52 incarnation is so tooth-grindingly boring that I can’t really stand reading her even in small doses) was how much I enjoyed them. The interactions between Superman and Batman, between Superman and Lois Lane, especially between Superman and Lana Lang, all felt immediately authentic, very little like the bulk of the New 52 run. And at one point there was splendid double-page spread of Superman simply going about his job, selflessly saving the day. The story had a great deal of heart.

Must have been a donor heart, of course, since the one thing completely missing supe7from these issues was any plot involving a “Super League.” Indeed, the term “Super League” is never even mentioned in any of these issues, which are part of a story called “The Final Days of Superman.” No idea where this “Super League” business comes from, but I finished these issues feeling something DC’s New 52 lineup has virtually never made me feel: eager for the rest of the story.

I don’t miss the irony, of course, that I’m feeling this just as the New 52 itself is about to undergo a major disruption. Given the almost uniform series of bad decisions involved in the New 52, I’m going into “Rebirth” expecting the worst. But before that, at least I’ve got this neato story to enjoy.

March 7th, 2016

Comics: If Asgard Should Perish!

lucy if asgardOur book today is a gem from 2010: a Marvel Premiere Edition called If Asgard Should Perish, with writing by Len Wein, artwork by John Buscema, and glorious coloring by Glynis Wein. This volume – which I somehow hadn’t known existed, and which I found just the other day in the used-book basement of the Harvard Book Store, collects eleven issue of Marvel’s Thor comic from the 1970s, and I was as happy as a pig in a warm wallow when I discovered it and thereby had the perfect excuse to re-read these adventures without digging up my forty-year-old single issues.

As eagle-eyed fans of Stevereads will no doubt recall, I had such an excuse once before, when a few years ago some of these issues were included in one of those thick black-and-white “Essential” reprint volumes, The Essential Thor #7. But reprint volume has long since disappeared from my library, and tonyfor once I’m not complaining – these are big, glorious adventures Wein cooked up for Thor and his Asgardian comrades (and feisty moral nurse Jane Foster); they deserve owned, read, and re-read in full color.

They’re not quite exactly the full colors Glynis Wein originally mangog againcrafted for these issues – in If Asgard Should Perish, the colors are brighter and a bit simpler. But I’m willing to think this might be an unavoidable limitation of the reprinting process after all this time, especially when transferring from newsprint to glossy pages.

There are four stories in this collection: two are short and somewhat silly kirby cover(Thor fights and then teams up with Ulik the Troll, Thor fights and then teams up with Firelord), one is a four-part time-travel epic I dearly love and have dubbed “The Temple at the End of Time,” and one is a disjointed political-personal story that gets just a little stranger to me each time I read it. The plot begins with Odin, the bearded and all-powerful ruler of Marvel Comics version of the Norse gods, acting even more short-karnilla strikestempered and unpredictable than usual – tyrannical, even, if that weren’t an unhelpful term in describing a character Stan Lee always wrote as being just a couple of stiff-armed salutes shy of an Asgardian Adolf Hitler. One by one, he’s imprisoned or exiled the more heroic members of Thor’s cohort, and eventually Thor journeys to Asgard to find out what’s going on.

He enlists the aid of his best friend Balder, his beloved Sif, the witch-queen Karnilla, and the Warriors Three, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg, and eventually he confronts Odin – who turns out to be Mangog in disguise! Mangog, the ancient foe of all Asgard! Mangog, who in his fighting prime possessed the strength of a billion billion beings! He’s weaker in these issues but still a royal pain – and still intent, nonsensically, on ending all life in the universe.

Thor of course stops him, but his defeat raises a natural question: if Mangog was masquerading as rabble-rousingOdin, where’s the real Odin? Thor wonders if his father might be dead, so he voyages to the underworld to see what he can see – and throws a godly tantrum when he discovers that Odin isn’t there. I admit I prefer the crisp inking of Joe Sinnott on Buscema’s pencils to the scratchier and less distinct finishings of Tony DeZuniga, but even so: I reveled all over again in these visuals.

What follows the issues in this run was as natural a storyline for Thor as falling out of bed: a quest – our heroes go looking for the missing Odin. And as we’ve seen here at Stevereads, that storyline yielded gems of its own. But none quite so glittering for me with nostalgic excitement as the stuff reprinted in this volume, found by chance in a bookstore I hardly ever visit!

February 21st, 2016

Comics: The “Rebirth” of the Legion?

legioncoverOur book today is a brightly-colored celebration from 2008: Legion of Super-Heroes: 1050 Years of the Future, sub-titled: “Celebrating 50 Years of Everyone’s Favorite Super-Team of Tomorrow!” It reprints some of the best issues from the long run of the various incarnations of the Legion of Super-Heroes, DC Comics’ sprawling super-team of teenagers fighting interstellar dangers a thousand years in the future.

The core idea of the group debuted in Adventure Comics #247 back in 1958 when a teenage Clark Kent is confronted in Smallville by three mysterious teenagers who know that Clark Kent and Superboy are one and the same. They quickly reveal themselves as time-travelers from the distant future, members of the Legion of Super-Heroes – and they ask Superboy to come back to the future with them and join their club. The three future-teens – Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad – have a bit of fun pranking Superboy about whether or not he’s good enough for the Legion, but the end result is foregone: Superboy joins the team, and comics history is made. As legendary Legion writer Paul Levitz recalls in this volume, the success of the idea was a surprise to everybody:

When sci-fi writer Otto Binder and classic Superman artist Al Plastino collaborated on the first appearance of the Legion, they could not have imagined they were building the cornerstone on which fifty years of stories would be built. Fifty years before Adventure Comics #247, there were no recognizable comic books in America, Hugo Gernsback hadn’t launched modern science fiction in Amazing Stories, and H. G. Wells had just begun writing of the future. The possibility that this short story could attract enough attention to generate hundreds of sequels was impossibly small. Yet it happened.

It did indeed happen, and fans couldn’t get enough. This was the first superhero team of the modernlegion1 era, the first such team since DC’s Justice Society of America had appeared nearly twenty years before, and the JSA had been cancelled a decade earlier, leaving a conspicuous void. And the Legion wasn’t just a super-team; two key innovations were at the heart of its appeal to its fans: all its members were teenagers, and aside from Superboy, all its members were brand-new characters, with powers, origins, and personalities that readers could discover together. In a way that had never been true before and has virtually never been true since, the Legion of Super-Heroes felt like it belonged to its readers.

Mark Waid, a later writer for the team, puts it succinctly in this volume:

The Legionnaires have been, at various points, my friends, my paycheck, my family, and probably most importantly, my greatest inspiration as a writer. I always feel like the luckiest boy on Earth when my world intersects with theirs.

legion21,050 Years of the Future reprints some fantastic Legion adventures, including that dorky, adorable first appearance, and “The Future is Forever” by Levitz and iconic Legion artist Keith Giffen, and the classic future-of-the-future story “The Adult Legion,” written by an obscenely young Jim Shooter and drawn by the great Superman artist Curt Swan. Waid himself writes (with Stuart Immonen artwork) a version of the team’s origin story, how Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad came together in the first place. An anthology like this one could have been five times as big and still only constitute a quick survey of all the great Legion storylines over the decades, although everything in here is perfectly chosen.

And the Legion is on my mind more than usual lately. Not just because DC Comics continues the years-long disgrace of having no Legion title currently in publication, but legion3because the company has recently been making veiled hints at another huge continuity-resetting event coming up this Spring. In May, DC launches something called “Rebirth,” in which, it seems to me, they intend to roll back or undo some of the many unsuccessful features of their disastrous “New 52” relaunch of a few years ago. When I first heard about “Rebirth,” I was instantly hopeful that a lot of things would be restored: the Justice Society of America, a Superman who stands for optimism, a Wonder Woman who stands for hope (and never says things like “What ho, fellow heroes! ‘Tis a fine day for combat!”) … and most of all, the Legion of Super-Heroes.

But there’s no Legion title on the list of first issues that’ll be rolling out this summer. That list certainly isn’t complete, and a wise old industry-watcher has since reassured me that there are signs of hope for a Legion return. But I remain doubtful – this company has been botching one of its best legacies for quite some time now. I’ll certainly be reading “Rebirth” in any case – I’ll report back.

January 16th, 2016

Comics! Secret Wars Concludes!

secret wars 9It’s been a long time, and a lot of water has gone under the proverbial bridge since Marvel’s latest mega-event “Secret Wars” mini-series began its nine-issue run back in 2007. Writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Esad Ribic launched the event – in which some kind of universe-killing singularity wipes out the entire continuity of the Marvel universe, leaving the super-villain Doctor Doom in possession of a godlike amount of power and a little world to shape and rule with it – with a great deal of enthusiasm, promising fans huge, re-shaping changes in all the favorite comic book characters. And now, the descendants of those fans have the final issue of the mini-series before them at last.

I always go into an event-series like this one with high hopes, which is nuts, I realize. In “Secret Wars,” Doctor Doom possesses the power to re-shape reality, and with a plot like that, the most tempting brass ring at the end of the run will be the possibility that when the dust settles, Marvel can use the mini-series to make fundamental changes to their monthly comics – that is, to give themselves a “do-over” when it comes to boneheaded plot-mistakes editors have allowed their writers to make over the last few years. Marvel has made an ample, almost embarrassing number of such mistakes recently, so such a series would have plenty of work to do.

And this issue’s cover – a hyper-kinetic masterpiece by Alex Ross – certainly got my hopes up. At the center of the cover, Doctor Doom and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four are grappling, and radiating outward from them are jagged shards showing iconic moment after iconic moment from the long history of Marvel Comics: we see the birth of Franklin Richards; we see the rebirth of Steve Rogers as Captain America; we see the death of Elektra; we see the first appearance of the sw2Phoenix; we see the fabled realm of Asgard. It all seems to bode well – it seems to hint that when the drama of the issue is over, Hickman and his editors will re-set Marvel’s continuity along the traditional lines that served the company so well for sixty years. Thor will no longer be a woman. Professor X and Jean Grey will no longer be dead. There will be only one team of Avengers. Steve Rogers will still be Captain America. There will only be one team of X-Men. And so on and so on.

The issue itself finds action in full-tilt. The Black Panther and the Sub-Mariner have accessed a source of near-infinite power themselves and are using it to battle Doctor Doom – until Hickman decides to shift the fight abruptly to a one-on-one fight between Reed and Doom, with the winner getting the power of a god.

Reed wins, and there’s a gigantic white flash, and then? Then I was hoping things would go back to normal.

But no. Instead, after all these years of waiting, the end result is an unmitigated mess. When the white light fades, we find Reed and his family calmly going about the business of using their godlike power to shape entire universes. They’ve got no plans to return to Earth – they appear to be living on the “Battleworld” planet Doom first created. We get a couple of glimpses of the “new” Marvel Universe, but since “Secret Wars” was originally intended to conclude back in early 2008, Marvel’s various comic books have been publishing in full spate since then, showing fans the changes this mini-series was supposed to be the first to reveal.

sw3Those changes are troubling. “Secret Wars” was the first Marvel mega-event ever that not only didn’t involve the X-Men but also scarcely mentioned mutants, for instance, and of course one of the biggest changes the mini-series brought about is the one I already alluded to: the Fantastic Four, the founding, flagship team of the Marvel renaissance, is no more. And in the larger, more money-driven world beyond Marvel’s comics, the company doesn’t own the cinematic rights to either the X-Men or the Fantastic Four – and in the wake of this reality-resetting mini-series, the X-Men have been reduced to one tiny splinter-group among many (with no iconic male Wolverine among their ranks), and the Fantastic Four has been eliminated altogether. The whole thing reeks not of a creative bullpen but of a corporate boardroom.

This particular issue had its strong points, as the entire mini-series has had: Hickman’s writing of these great, foundational Marvel characters crackles with life, and Esad Ribic’s artwork in these pages is the best stuff he’s ever done. But the plot makes little to no sense even by mega-event standards, and the end result is still a Marvel continuity in ass-over-tea kettle disarray. Maybe the next Secret Wars will have better luck.

January 7th, 2016

Comics! Obi-Wan & Anakin!

obi-wan1The onslaught of new Marvel Comics titles set in the world of Star Wars will now flow unabated, thanks to the grotesque, obscene box office success of the new Star Wars move, The Force Awakens (as of this writing, the movie has grossed over one trillion dollars and been officially inducted into the official liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church)(also, the planet Jupiter has been renamed “Poe Dameron”). And the latest of these is called Obi-Wan & Anakin and features, as that title might suggest, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and his even-younger padawan apprentice Anakin Skywalker.

Star Wars fans have been given quite a lot of this curiously uninteresting duo. They were featured of course in the three big-budget travesties George Lucas made of his own original trilogy of movies, and they also starred in two excellent Clone Wars TV series. This new comic is set long before most obi-wan2of their adventures; Obi-Wan is a Jedi Master, a serenely powerful, grounded figure, and Anakin is a boy who appears to be on the doorstep of puberty (his height changes from panel to panel in this first issue, so it’s tough to tell), and they’re on a mission to the forbidding, ruined world of Carnelion IV in response to a strange distress call that seems to have come from a Jedi of some kind.

Young Anakin, already chaffing under the constraints of the Jedi Order, looks at the ruins on Carnelion and sharply wonders aloud to his master why the Jedi and the Senate had allowed the people of this world to destroy themselves, and Obi-Wan hands him the party line:

The Jedi Order is under the jurisdiction of the Senate. The same was true when this planet was destroyed. And even if we weren’t, there are only ten thousand of us to keep the light of peace alive in the galaxy. The Jedi can guide. We can teach. We can help people help themselves. But we are not an army. If a people are truly determined to write themselves out of existence, there is little we can do.

obi-wan3Naturally, the two immediately encounter adventures on Carnelion IV, and going into it, I was certain it would disappoint me, that it would feel derivative, and most of all that it would steadfastly avoid the mess of the whole subject of the master-padawan relationship in the Star Wars universe – what it is, why it so often goes so badly wrong (half the padawans mentioned in the movies turn evil and do so while their allegedly Force-sensitive masters sail blithely on, caught totally unawares)(and even this first issue features the ridiculous Lucas character Chancellor Palpatine, the Most Evil Person in the Universe who’s nonetheless somehow able to rub shoulders with dozens of Jedi Masters all day long without any of them suspecting a thing, when in every single such scene, a non-Jedi bus driver could easily see that this guy was curdled milk). And while that relationship gets no real attention in this first issue, boy oh boy it didn’t disappoint me! The writing by Charles Soule and the artwork by Marco Checchetto (with lovely coloring by Andres Mossa) combined to make a terrific first issue, my favorite of all Marvel’s new Star Wars comics so far.

November 21st, 2015

Comics: Yet More First Issues!

black knight 1For a solid fourth week of visits to my beloved Comicopia here in Boston, I’ve had first issues in my bag when I left. As I’ve mentioned here at Stevereads before, I remember when the appearance of a first issue was a big deal, fairly rare – finding one on the spinner rack of Trow’s Stationary was a rare and vaguely unsettling experience, a jostling of the universe’s settled order, and the troubling possibility, like a pregnancy, of introducing something dreadful into the world.

Of course, those were the days before the ridiculous speculator-boom hit the world of comics and turned every basement-dwelling, Doritos-scarfing, mouth-breathing virgin into a wheeler-dealer bagging every pristine new purchase in plastic, dreaming of reaping enormous profits when that copy of The Adventures of Razorback #1 squintuples in value. Nowadays, that mindset has taken firm root in the comics world, and as a result, comics companies – no fools them – have become quite liberal in their production of first issues.

Gone entirely is the even vague presumption that these first issues represent the optimistic beginnings of enterprises of great merit. Gone is even the pretense of hope for actual success. Nobody at Marvel, for example, expects to see a 100th-issue anniversary celebration of Karnak; it’s unlikely that the folks at DC see much potential for longevity in Bizarro. No, the most the various creators are probably hoping for in their new first issues is a long-enough run to fill up a couple of the graphic novels where the companies make their money anyway.

It can lead to some depressing reading experiences, but I’ve been mostly lucky this month,black knight2 and this week continued the streak. I bought, for instance, the first issue of Black Knight, in which writer Frank Tieri and artist Luca Pizzari find Dane Whitman, Marvel Comics’ Black Knight – a former member of the Avengers (including playing a major role in great Bob Harras/Steve Epting run on that title) – now the warlord of a weird planet in an alternate dimension, cut off from Earth but still visited regularly by the ghost of one of his illustrious Black Knight ancestors, who’s concerned that Dane Whitman is succumbing to the dark bloodlust embodied in his magic ebony sword.

It’s an interesting take on the character, and the issue ends with a nifty cliffhanger that will probably have me buying the second issue as well.

batman europa 1The week’s other first issue doesn’t quite count, since it only kicks off a mini-series, not an allegedly ongoing title (although since, as I mentioned, most new ongoing titles are such half-hearted affairs they fade into the woodwork fairly quickly anyway, there isn’t much of a difference between the two anymore): It’s DC’s Batman Europa #1, with script by Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello and artwork by Jim Lee, and it has a storyline that must have seemed like pure gold during some boozy pitch meeting: Batman finds himself infected with a mysterious, deadly virus, and the clues about it lead him to Berlin, where he finds the Joker menacing a young hacker who’s connected to the virus in some way. And in the course of the ensuing fisticuffs, it turns out that the Joker is likewise infected – and the two arch-enemies have to work together to hunt down a cure before they both die! Comic book gold, yes?

It doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny, of course. Not only is Joker’s involvement haphazardly mechanical (some guy finds him, tells him he’s been infected, and points him toward Berlin – Joker kills the guy without learning anything more from him than the presence somewhere in Berlin of the aforementioned young hacker – but no such guy makes a similar announcement to Batman; if he hadn’t used the super-sophisticated equipment of the Batcave, he’s simply have withered and died and been none the wiser), but the actual europa2script offers not one single believable reason why Batman would need to team up with a mass murderer in order to find the creator of the virus – the Joker brings nothing to the hunt. It’s a story that doesn’t manage to limp two paces outside that pitch meeting.

And yeesh, Cassali and Azzarello don’t exactly shine in the writing department this time around. Berlin itself is introduced with a chunk of dead prose, for instance:

For the dead, the defining city of the 20th century. War-tumbled into seclusion, then rolled into rage. But that pulse is now just an echo … through the Brandenburg Gate. The blood, though it’s still here … even at Checkpoint Charlie, now just a footnote of the past. That’s what Berlin has become – a bad dream that it wants to wake up from. Here, the Weimar Republic was burnt to the ground … and fifty years later, the Reichstag was built anew in glass and steel.

But the past … it may fade, but it doesn’t go away. The hill of the Berlin Planetarium is constructed from World War Two debris and rubble. When people gaze at the stars, their feet are firmly on a ground they can’t deny.

europa3And to add to these annoyances, there’s also the fact that this particular first issue, at $5, is roughly four pages long. The back half of the issue is entirely taken up with full-page in-house ads.

The only thing compensating all these drawbacks was something that actually took me a few pages to realize: this isn’t the “New 52” revamped Batman with the weird piping on his costume – it’s the normal Batman, and he’s dealing with a Joker clearly out of the established continuity of DC’s current lineup, a “classic” Joker dressed in green and purple. The story would need to get a whole lot better for me to return for another issue, but even so: it sure was nice to see DC trot out these iconic versions of their characters, even if it’s only for a mini-series.

November 11th, 2015

Comics! American Alien #1!

avengers1Today’s selection of new comics – reached at my beloved Comicopia through a miserable pining chilly mist – was typically broad and had plenty of interesting-looking new titles, including quite a few ever-optimistic first issues. In one of those, The All-New, All-Different Avengers (as with so much in the new, trendy, app-y Marvel Comics line, that title contains an in-joke you have to be sixty years old to get), the eventual roster of the Earth’s Mightiest Super-Team is apparently going to include three teenagers, but the first issue had a pretty Alex Ross cover.

The day’s new issues also included the next issue of Marvel’s “Secret Wars” squadronmini-series, the title that’s so good I always end up forgiving it for the brainless havoc it’s causing to a company and characters I’ve liked for decades. And there was the final issue of the “Secret Wars” spin-off mini-series Squadron Sinister, which featured fantastic artwork by Carlos Pacheco and a nifty little visual homage to an dkiconic DC Comics scene (this one from only thirty years ago … sigh …).

But the real standout for me this week will be fairly obvious to long-time readers of Stevereads: it was the first issue of a new DC mini-series called Superman: American Alien, written by Max Landis, who’ll be joined by a different artist every month.

One of the things I’ve always loved about the Superman mythos is the way it american alien1continually attracts re-envisionings like this. I think back to Superman: Birthright or Superman: Secret Identity or other mini-series that have brought me so much joy over the years by re-imagining the story of the Man of Steel according to each individual creator’s lights. Even when I don’t particularly like the re-imagining in question, I always, always like the passion.

And I loved this first issue, which focuses on the struggles young Clark Kent goes through in Smallville as his superpowers begin to manifest themselves. The boy is tormented by his desire to simply be normal, and his young parents are by turns terrified and american alien2exhilarated (“My baby can fly” Ma Kent says at one point, looking up in wonder), and it’s all done beautifully, both in Landis’ heartfelt script and the goofy, cartoonish artwork of Nick Dragotta. I came to the end of the issue with a bit smile on my face, eager to follow the next six installments.

The smile vanished the instant I saw the back-page author interview and made the connection with who this “Max Landis” is – son of schlock horror max landisdirector Joe Landis, and more importantly, independently and in his own right a monstrously egotistical, narcissistic, condescending asshole. By the time I was done choking down the interview (in which he insults his interviewer no fewer than six times) and looking at his smug asshole face, I was glad I’d only seen the feature after I read and loved the issue – If I’d made the Max Landis connection prior to visiting Comicopia, I’m pretty sure I would have skipped the issue. So I guess I’ll chalk it up to a good reminder: you shouldn’t hate the creation just because you hate the creator.

Unless the creator is Ezra Pound, of course.

November 5th, 2015

Comics: Hercules #1!

hercules1Yesterday’s comics featured – as they now tend to do on an almost alarmingly frequent basis – the first issue of a new series, in this case Hercules #1, written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Luke Ross (the credits also include the rather hilarious line “Hercules created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby”). I bought it with fear and trembling, since the track record of Marvel Comics at re-envisioning their classic characters is spotty at best.

But I was pleasantly surprised: Abnett here gently updates the character about as well as such an update could be done. No violence is perpetrated upon the 60-year history Hercules has as a Marvel character (to put it mildly, this hasn’t always been the case: over the years, Hercules has been violated, de-powered, dumbed-down and conceptually neutered so many times you’d think he was every female superhero ever). True, he’s given a slight visual re-tweeking, but not only is it very slight (basically, he gets pants)(and a disastrous man-bun that looks every bit as ridiculous on him as it does on every 2015 douchebag who’s trying to make it popular), it’s also acknowledged: at one point, we see our current Hercules looking at a glass case containing his old traditional outfit, with its leather leg-lacings and odd ear-flaps.

This Hercules lives in Astoria and performs “labors” for fees, although his fees hercules2seem to take the form of “propitiations” – the two little boys who hire him in this issue to confront the disguised monster dating their older sister offer a Japanese trading card, for instance (there’s a wonderful little scene where we see him carefully add it to his collection).

While the boys are walking with him to their apartment, we get a good sample of the issue’s largely grounded dialogue (in a splash page that’s very well done by Ross, although considering the fact that this issue costs as much as a solid lunch, three splash panels in 15 pages might be a smidge too many):

“You’re really Hercules?”

“Yes, but that is just a name. I am also Herakles. Before that, I had other names.”

“What other names?”

“Old names. Names that were old by the time writing began. Names that were sung. I go by Hercules. I’ve become an adjective. Foolish to ignore that kind of recognition.”

And after he’s confronted and defeated the monster boyfriend, the boys ask him who taught him to be a hero, and he answers: “I picked it up as I went along. I labored at it. When I was becoming … what I am, there were no other heroes hercules3around to teach me.”

That idea – that Hercules was the first super-hero – is simple and winning, as is the issue’s underlying theme that Hercules is now willing to adapt to the modern world, using high-tech gear in combat in addition to swords and maces. And I’m hoping the presence in this issue of “The Forgotten One,” one of Marvel’s lamest characters despite the fact that he was an Avenger for about ten minutes, means there’ll be plenty of interaction here with the rest of the Marvel Universe.

So: a sigh of relief. A character-relaunch that succeeds on all counts. I won’t get too comfortable, mind you – this is still a company with its creative head mostly up its aesthetic ass – but I’ll buy the second issue.