Posts from February 2017
February 2nd, 2017
Yet another terrific week for DC Comics … which still feels distinctly odd to say. For the last five years or so, while DC’s lineup of iconic superheroes was in the throes of the company’s “New 52” continuity remake, I mostly dreaded seeing the titles on offer every week at Boston’s one-and-only Comicopia. From the New 52, I’d quickly come to expect cold and alienating characters, grim story lines, and messy, lunging plots more concerned with setting up the next tent-pole mega-event than entertaining readers in the here-and-now; I’d fallen into the grim plight of relying on Marvel Comics for my weekly comic book joys, meager as they were.
But DC’s latest tweaking of their New 52 formula seems to have worked wonders pretty much across the board of the company’s marquee titles (I say “pretty much” because I’m holding off on trying more of those titles – things like Green Arrow or Green Lantern until their current story-arcs end). I look forward to the latest issues now, and they never disappoint – in fact, they often rise above my expectations, and lately they’ve been doing that in the same way: in every issue, in the midst of whatever’s going on, the writers pause to give readers a wonderful tight-focus take-a-breath moment of pure character … pretty much exactly the element that was missing from so much of the New 52. All four of the issues I bought this week had such moments, starting off with the issue that could be characterized as one protracted such moment:
Justice League – In this stand-alone issue written and drawn by the deplorable Bryan Hitch, our heroes of the Justice League – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, the Flash, Aquaman, and two Green Lanterns – have flown up into low orbit to confront a gigantic alien machine that’s suddenly appeared. It hits them with an energy-blast so powerful it buries them a mile underground, and while they’re pulling themselves together (the issue is called “Regroup”), they talk out many of the issues that have been dividing them and sapping their self-confidence lately. In recent years I’ve lost pretty many all the faith I once had in Bryan Hitch as a storyteller, but in this issue he’s in excellent form: all of the League members are squarely in character, including Batman, whose interaction with the League is very tricky to get right even for writers who give a crap about what they’re doing. There’s very little in the way of action – the whole issue takes place in a hole in the ground – but I loved it. And the comic book-style action was delivered in double dose in the next issue I got:
Superman – This issue, written by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason and drawn by Tony Daniel and Clay Mann, concludes the “Multiplicity” storyline in which the Supermen and Superwomen (and, um, Super-Rabbit) from dozens of alternate dimensions are being hunted by a gigantic mysterious alien who then imprisons them and siphons their superpowers. “Our” Superman deliberately lets himself be captured by this alien so that he can learn about it and spring a trap that will free both himself and his fellow super-prisoners. But before the trap can spring, there’s a moment when Superman takes it upon himself to revive the flagging morale of his comrades: “You’re Supermen and Superwomen. We’re all created equal, because we want to help, and nothing will ever destroy that as long as there’s one person left taking a breath with an ‘S’ on their chest.” A nice simple sentiment, and once again, not the kind of thing readers were likely to encounter in the New 52. And there was an unexpected moment just like that in our next issue:
Aquaman – This issue, written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Brad Walker and titled “Peace in Our Time,” comes as a kind of calmer epilogue to the world-shaking events of the multi-part story that preceded it; Aquaman and his fellow Atlanteans are helping the little Massachusetts town of Amnesty Bay pick up the pieces. Back when he was just the odd half-human boy Arthur Curry, Aquaman grew up in Amnesty Bay, and in the course of this issue Abnett gives us a nice feeling of a home-town hero working amongst old friends. But one of those old friends, an Amnesty Bay cop named Erika, has fresh memories of the battles that only just lately concluded, and the moment Abnett provides between her and Aquaman is touching and a little sad. “I saw you, Arthur,” she tells him, “in this crisis, and when that monster tore through here … I saw you put your life on the line. I saw you fight like … like savage stuff trying to stop that thing. I saw what you really are. Not the boy I grew up with. Not the boy I’d crushed on so hard. You kinda scare me.” To which Aquaman, amazed, responds, “I scare you?” “I didn’t mean,” she goes on “… you’re superhuman. I never really took that seriously before. I saw what I saw. It was serious. You were serious.” He tries to reassure her: “Erika … I’m still Arthur Curry.” And she says: “No, you’re not. You never were. I was fooling myself.” It’s a fairly stark moment, and yet there’s none of the bitter angst that would surely once have filled the scene. And when it comes to bitter angst, surely its home in comics is our final title this week:
Batman – This issue, the first chapter of a new “I am Bane” story-arc, is written by Tom King and drawn by David Finch, and it serves mostly as a high-tension prologue to the story of the New 52 Batman’s next bit confrontation with his hulking foe Bane. Batman has learned that Bane is coming to Gotham, and he warns his young proteges (the current incarnation of DC’s Caped Crusader spends a great deal of time hanging out with muscular young men, bless his black little heart) to get out of town and let him deal with the monster himself. But the best moment of the issue comes later, when he delivers the same warning to someone else: he swings down onto the rooftop of the Gotham PD headquarters in answer to the Bat-Signal … only to find not Commissioner Gordon but Catwoman, who’s now wanted for multiple counts of murder. “You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be anywhere near here,” he tells her. “I know,” she answers. “And yet. Here I am.” And when Gotham’s finest burst onto the roof with guns drawn, she says, “I have to go,” and adds, “When you need me …” Batman tersely replies, “I don’t need you,” to which she responds “And yet” and leaps into the night, leaving Batman to repeat to himself, “And yet.” It’s a quick moment, a breather before the action commences (as it does in only two pages, with the best cliff-hanger ending I’ve seen in a DC comic in years), but it’s refreshing just the same.
Refreshing’s the word – these issues of DC’s flagship titles have been completely refreshing after years of often murky storytelling. I’ll report back next week.
January 11th, 2017
The week’s comics reflected a very, very old pattern of mine: buying for artists rather than writers. It would be wrong to say that for most of my comics-buying life I cared much more about a title’s artwork than about its writing; far closer to the truth to say I didn’t care about the writing at all – to the point where I’d routinely buy issues or even entire runs of books whose writing, the actual characters and plots, didn’t interest me in the slightest. If John Romita Jr. drew Iron Man, then I’d buy the latest Iron Man, even though the character bored me spitless. If Dave Gibbons drew Green Lantern, I’d buy the latest Green Lantern, even though the character was tedium incarnate. This even applied when my favorite artists were, shall we say, miscast in their latest art chores. When the mighty Gene Colan briefly drew Wonder Woman, I dutifully bought the issues, even though he made Wonder Woman look like Bella Abzug’s older sister. When the sublime artistry of Michael Golden was lavished on Micronauts, or the equally-sublime artistry of José Luis García-López lavished on Atari Force, I not only loyally bought the issues but also loyally write letters praising the artwork.
Friends over the decades pointed out that this could be construed as a standing insult to the very medium I professed to love. “What you’re saying is that it doesn’t matter how well or poorly the issues are written,” one such friend (who’s since gone on to write some mighty fine comics himself) would argue on fragrant evenings in Madison. “Which means you’re saying they CAN’T be well-written enough to get your money even if you don’t like the artist.”
I confess, at the time and for the longest time afterwards, the very idea of buying a comic for the writing alone – a comic whose artwork did nothing for me – was simply bewildering to me. After all, weren’t comic books an entirely visual medium?
I didn’t quite track the exact period when that predisposition changed, but here in the 21st century, it’s certainly different. The writing in superhero comics has been steadily improving since the 1990s, to the point where the baseline level of complexity and humor in 2017 is easily enough to keep me reading an ongoing title even if it’s drawn by Barry Kitson.
So I was given a little jolt of nostalgia this week when I realized that as random chance would have it, the latest issues I was buying were chosen entirely because of their artwork. For instance, there was the third issue of Marvel’s Occupy Avengers, written by David Walker and drawn by the great Carlos Pacheco. The series seems to be following the Avenger Hawkeye as he travels across America slowly and gradually accumulating a team of weak-ass third-string superheroes to fight local crimes. The writing is slangy and energetic, but Walker inexplicably makes Hawkeye not only a weakling (in this issue he takes a beating from Nighthawk that, as Pacheco draws it, should have left him blind and severely crippled) but a bad shot – but I’ve been buying the issues anyway, because I wouldn’t miss any work done by Pacheco.
Likewise the great Lee Weeks, who does the art for issue #7 of DC’s new Titans title, featuring grown-up “Rebirth”-continuity versions of the Teen Titans. There’s Nightwing, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Speedy … but the usual messy post “New 52” continuity makes a hash of who knows who, who’s always known who, etc. Luckily, the issue’s writer, Dan Abnett, makes up a lot of this lost ground by crafting instantly likable versions of all these characters – although even that little toe-hold is pried loose in this issue by the appearance of the “Rebirth”-continuity Superman, who hails from the same pre-reboot universe as Kid Flash. The two of them have a muddled and halting talk about it in this issue, just matter-of-factly discussing the fact that they now live in an alternate reality in which none of their old friends and loved ones remember their old relationships. Superman’s best theory? “Something weird is definitely going on.” These characters, the ones readers have followed for decades, would ordinarily be banding together and stopping at nothing to return to their own home reality … but since DC wants the “Rebirth” continuity to further the “New 52” reboot rather than re-write it, our two survivors here simply accept the loss of their earlier lives. Which is pretty maddening.
I expected to be maddened by the third issue under consideration this time around, and it, too, I bought for its art: issue #14 of the “Rebirth” Wonder Woman, written by Greg Rucka and drawn magnificently by Nicola Scott. I hadn’t been reading this title prior to noticing this issue, so I was coming aboard deep inside an ongoing story chronicling the “Rebirth”-version of Wonder Woman’s first year in Man’s World. In this issue, Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor are fighting the evil war-god Ares, and maybe it’s Rucka’s vision of the early years of the character, but I absolutely loved the issue; the glowering, sword-wielding savage “New 52” version the Amazon princess is nowhere in evidence – this version has the glowing lariat but no sword at all, and her costume is brightly-colored, and her nature is full if caring optimism; it was like getting the best version of the character back again for a single issue … and drawn with delightful grace by Scott.
There were other issues on the stands this week, plenty of them, and given the merry-go-round of creators on most comics these days, the great artists featured in these issues will probably be gone next month. But for now, it was great to snap up some comics for my oldest reason.
December 7th, 2016
A standout for DC Comics this week, part of the company’s ongoing “Rebirth” line of titles slightly revamping the continuity that was itself revamped six years ago in the company’s “New 52” revamp, is issue #10 of Nightwing, in which the fan-favorite character moves to the seedy city of Blüdhaven with which he was so firmly associated back in the 1990s (DC is also currently issuing omnibus collections of those great old issues, with scripts by Chuck Dixon and incredible artwork by Scott McDaniel). In the “Rebirth” continuity, Blüdhaven is still corrupt from its sewers to its rooftops, but this Nightwing has never lived there before – it’s a city without a superhero.
Nightwing has always been a puzzling superhero no matter where he hangs his domino mask. In his everyday civilian identity of Dick Grayson, he was introduced to comics readers by Bill Finger and Bob Kane back in 1940 as Robin the Boy Wonder, a cheerful, youthful sidekick to Batman. In that simpler comic book age, no questions were raised inside Batman’s fictional universe as to why a burly adult crime-fighter would want a young boy as a sidekick in the first place, and for forty years or so there was likewise no question of Robin actually getting any older.
But once Stan Lee introduced a modicum of realism into superhero comics, that started to change. Robin the Boy Wonder became Robin the Teen Wonder (who still wore a skimpy bikini-bottom and pixie boots and yet was somehow taken seriously by friend and foe alike), which in turn started to feel awkward. Then in 1984, in something of a first in the superhero world, writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez had Dick Grayson shed his Robin booties and adopt a new superhero costume and code-name, Nightwing. No bright yellow cape this time – instead, the costume featured a popped collar and plunging V-neck … and although the character caught on with readers and has steadily grown in popularity for the past thirty years, the puzzlements remain.
After all, this is a character who’s derivative in every conceivable way. He’s an orphan who grew up to become a crime fighter, but Batman was that first. He’s now a costumed urban vigilante stalking criminals by night, but Batman was that first and will always be that better (every adult comics fan in the world recognizes the name “Nightwing” … but every adult person in the world recognizes the name “Batman”). Even his superhero codename isn’t original – “Nightwing” was a folkloric hero of Superman’s homeworld Krypton.
Far from being obstacles, these things have instead inspired Nightwing writers over the decades to differentiate the character from the crowd of spandex-wearing acrobats in the most enjoyable way possible: not through external circumstances but through character traits. Nightwing gradually became not just a jokester and light-hearted adventurer but also, again in something of a first at least where male superheroes are concerned, an unabashed sex symbol (it’s no coincidence that the cover of this latest issue gives us a nice unobstructed view of the character’s pert derrière).
Puzzling or not, the character has just about as fanatical a fan base as any superhero property in the DC roster (the only group more fanatical, fans of the Legion of Super-Heroes, currently has nothing whatsoever to cheer about at DC, but that’s a rant for another day), and one of the central tenets of DC’s “Rebirth” line has been to reward that kind of fan loyalty rather than ignore it, as so many of the “New 52” titles seemed to do. So not only do those fans get in Nightwing the version of the character they most love, but in Nightwing #10 they get their favorite character back where they want him most, in Blüdhaven.
This first issue of the new arc is written by Nightwing vet Tim Seeley and drawn by Marcus To, and it uses a very deliberately laid back pacing in order to ease readers into this locational change for the character – Dick Grayson is slowly, tentatively getting to know his new home, and something of that tentativeness is reflected in the largely static feel of the first half of the issue, where Dick interviews for a day job and unpacks his belongings.
The issue’s climactic action sequence picks up the pace, of course (although absurdly – a combat-trained human acrobat cannot defeat a gorilla in hand-to-hand combat; a combat-trained human acrobat would last about two-and-one-half seconds against a gorilla), but Seeley goes easy on the tempo and the complications in this introductory chapter. The plot complications aren’t the point in this issue anyway, he seems to be saying: the point is that for Nightwing, the changes and upheavals of the “New 52” character revamp have now been effectively wiped clean – Dick Grayson is Nightwing again, and Nightwing is back in Blüdhaven again. In the roster of “Rebirth” gifts to reward loyal fans, this ranks right up near the top of the list.
Meanwhile, Legion fans will just have to keep waiting …
December 2nd, 2016
Back in 1989, inexplicably popular comic book artist Bryan Hitch was given control of DC Comics bestselling iconic “New 52” series Justice League of America and began a multi-part storyline called “Power and Glory,” in which Rao, the god of Superman’s lost homeworld Krypton, turns up alive and well on Earth one day and starts demanding that everybody worship him. The biddable sheeple of Planet Earth are only too happy to trade their free will for a few paltry miracle cures, but the Justice League – comprised here of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg – smells a rat. And an epic, multi-issue battle commences.
Now, at the end of 2016, after the entire continuity of DC Comics has undergone complete revamps and the original readers of “Power and Glory” have all grown old and passed on their comics longboxes to the next generation, the story finally comes to a conclusion in JLA #10.
Which is neither written nor drawn by Bryan Hitch. Which prompts me to ask yet again the same question I’ve been asking now for ten years: why does this unprofessional, totally unreliable charlatan continue to get prestige commissions from DC and Marvel? Why isn’t he doing semi-annual John Constantine 8-page backup features that nobody notices at all?
He hasn’t actually finished one of those high-profile assignments in a decade. When he signs on for some big event – Marvel’s Age of Ultron (or a run on its now shamefully defunct Fantastic Four), this Justice League run, or his previous Justice League run, etc. – it’s now common knowledge that he will a) miss deadlines, b) omit panel backgrounds, c) commit phoned-in or on-the-fly inept character redesigns, and finally d) walk off the job without completing it, leaving behind a mess that has to be sorted out by less expensive company talent. Hitch’s projects start with bombast, momentum along with an adolescent mixture of hyperventilation and sexism, and then fall flat on their faces with incredibly ad hoc and disappointing endings.
It would be one thing if this had happened once in a long career. Anybody can have a bit of bad luck. But this isn’t an isolated feature in Hitch’s career – it’s the defining characteristic of his career. If you attach him to your high-profile new comics title, that’s exactly what you’ll get: an overheated beginning, a long string of delays, and an abandoned mess.
The wrapping-up of the abandoned mess is what readers get in issue #10, which is written by Tony Bedard and drawn by Tom Derenick. The only thing about the issue that’s still Bryan Hitch is the cover, and it serves as a perfect parting shot of all that’s ridiculous and reprehensible about this shoddy fraud. It’s a generic pose-shot of the League in combat, Superman firing off his heat vision, Batman leaping into the fray, Green Lantern blasting energy, Flash accelerating to full speed, Aquaman brandishing his trident … and, front and center of the cover, Wonder Woman firing some sort of double-handled Uzi.
Only no explanation is given – nor would ever be considered necessary by a misogynist of Hitch’s caliber – for why a super-powered Amazon warrior with an indestructible golden lariat would need a gun. No explanation is given for why in an assembly where she’s arguable the most powerful person present (an assembly that includes Batman, who has no superpowers at all), she’s the only one who needs something she bought at Walmart. And no explanation is given for why on this particular cover Wonder Woman is a 20-something male cosplayer.
Hitch’s status as a high-demand fan favorite seems invulnerable, even though it’s the fans who get rooked every single time he attaches his name to a project. But at least “Power and Glory” is now over and done with. Bring on the next abortive fiasco.
May 27th, 2016
Comics 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 company’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 their 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
Last 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.
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 Batman 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
I 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 alternate-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.
And 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 weaken 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” version 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 from 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
Our 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 for 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 crafted 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 (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-tempered 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 Odin, 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
Our 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 modern 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.
1,050 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 because 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
It’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 Phoenix; 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.
Those 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.