Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 QB50

This year’s edition of my annual countdown of comic book favorites is slightly different in that the selection was notably compromised throughout the year. For the first time since the list began in 2006 I did not make regular trips to a store or have shipments delivered to my home during the calendar year, so that everything that appears this time is something I was either lucky enough to catch or tried to keep track of, and by necessity the selection was not what it once was, so that a book I desperately wish I could include (Oni’s consistently great WASTELAND, which shipped two issues in 2011), for instance, won’t be present. I will further elaborate in the entries below.

1. RASL (Cartoon)
Jeff Smith managed to release three issues (#s 10-12) this year, during which lead character Robbie dealt with personal matters and the recurring narrative of Nikola Tesla’s incredible career was once again revisited. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I haven’t been the greatest supporter of this book in the QB50 (it ranked at 50th its debut year, but moved to 10th and then 4th last year), especially since the greater comics community has given Smith’s new project (after his seminal BONE) a tepid response at best. His vision of parallel realities comes at an interesting time, considering that the TV show FRINGE started making it a focus in the second season, yet RASL stands apart for its incredibly stark, almost impressionistic approach, which attempts to drive home how desperate and yet determined Robbie is, which has consistently been contrasted with the tough breaks a genius like Tesla was forced to endure. I’ve got a feeling the complete story of this series will receive a great deal more interest than its episodic releases have.

Grant Morrison’s latest Dark Knight saga, picking up threads of a giant already encompassing “R.I.P.,” THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE, and various other stories, had only began as 2010 came to a close, landing it 22nd on last year’s list, but there were six individual issues and then just recently the LEVIATHAN STRIKES one-shot that collected the intended final issues of the initial run for this series, which will bring Morrison’s vision to a close. The thing that’s better than any of that is that these are some of the most fun superhero stories anyone’s told in years, which you could easily enjoy without knowing or caring about the bigger picture, and that’s exactly what I liked so much and wanted to follow throughout the early months of the year, the first ongoing series I tried to keep track of after abandoning regular reading in January for financial reasons. That’s how I knew I was really hooked, and that’s what you look for when determining what your favorites really are.

DC’s big event of the summer that led to the much ballyhooed “New 52” relaunch was also possibly the best story to date from Geoff Johns, focusing on his vision of a Barry Allen who lost his mother at an early age and never really got over it, the worst part of his ongoing war with archnemesis Eobard Thawne, which led to The Flash ending up in an alternate reality where just about everything had gone terribly wrong, whether it was Wonder Woman and Aquaman going to war against each other or Superman being held captive by a secret government program or Thomas Wayne becoming Batman because it was his son who was murdered (and just why is it that few creators have ever considered the death of a child to be enough to create a superhero, anyway?), among many other changes.

Johns, it seems, was only getting warmed up, because he also conceived the flagship of the relaunch, another reboot of the seminal superhero team that saw it coming together for the first time, only instead of everyone being a big happy family from the beginning everyone is getting to know each other for the first time, allowing Johns and Jim Lee to present iconic characters in new and striking ways, from Batman and Green Lantern to Superman and Wonder Woman arriving on the scene, and a new version of Cyborg’s origin. This is one of the best ongoing superhero titles ever.

The quality of an ongoing series can fluctuate greatly, of course, depending on the creative team. Geoff Johns on ACTION COMICS led it to 3rd in 2007, 2nd in 2008, before he left and the title slipped to 46th in 2009 and 34th in 2010. Paul Cornell had started his run by the end of last year, and the quality began to shoot all the way back up, and so as he finished up his grand Lex Luthor story in the landmark and all-around exceptional (including various backup features from other creators) #900 (best single issue of the year), I was already set to rank the series near the top, even if I didn’t read too many issues, and then the relaunch took place and Grant Morrison took the reigns, presenting an entirely new vision of the Man of Steel that returns him to his iconic roots as few writers (except for Morrison himself, and of course Johns) have been able to do in recent years, certainly since the turn of the millennium. If Superman isn’t must-read, there’s a problem. Fortunately, that’s not a problem anymore.

Geoff Johns again, although I confess to having read only two issues of the book pre-relaunch this year (#s 66-67), which came at the end of the “War of the Green Lanterns,” which seemed a little like a blow-off quasi-event even before I knew that there was indeed something else to move onto. Yet Johns was one of the few writers to have the chance to continue writing an uninterrupted story in the fall, since he’d just given Sinestro one of the more improbable redemptive strokes in comics lore, returning a GL ring to his finger for the first time (excluding “Emerald Twilight”) in decades. While I’ve long been a fan of Johns’ Green Lantern work, I haven’t always ranked it very high (19th in 2007, 15th in 2008 and 2009, and then 5th last year). This is probably a career high for material in the actual GREEN LANTERN title, now that he’s concentrating on individual characters again, specifically Sinestro and Hal Jordan.

This was a graphic novel that creator Jonathan Case released this year, a wonderful, monster-meets-Shakespeare tale, wonderfully literate and easily one of the more imaginative stories I had the privilege to read, which I’ve since seen in Barnes & Noble, and that may be testament enough to its broad appeal.

I managed to read only two issues of Mike Costa and Antonio Fuso’s masterful comics this year, which began (3rd in 2009 and 2010) as a mini-series support book to IDW’s big G.I. Joe launch, and this year finally gained enough moment to drive the entire franchise, leading to “Cobra Civil War.” Thankfully I was able to catch G.I. JOE: COBRA #12, the issue where Cobra Commander is assassinated, but only #4 of COBRA, the relaunch that finally saw fit to eliminate the good guys from the title. I honestly don’t know why so many critics have a hard time giving this book (by whatever name) its due, because very few creators have been able to do as convincing and piercing character work as Costa (who started these efforts with Christos Gage) and regular artist Fuso. My biggest regret of the year was not being able to read every issue of this continuing saga.

The final issue of Grant Morrison’s minimalist, surreal saga of the hypoglycemic youth who really just needed a sip of soda to overcome his many troubles, or maybe just a reunion with his dad, was finally released, and it was worth the wait. This is another one of those comics that may read better as a whole than in its original installments, and may prove to be one of Morrison’s definitive works, similar to WE3, where the frenetic and eclectic approach seen in most of his other works is replaced for a more user-friendly result.

Ranked 32nd last year, this is the unappreciated follow-up to the 2005 breakout YOUNG AVENGERS from Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, as well as unofficial (?) sequel to HOUSE OF M, which finally answers the question, Whatever Happened to the Scarlet Witch? When I finally got around to discovering it for myself, Heinberg’s Avengers was easily my favorite, most lucid Marvel comic book, a series that wasn’t afraid to let its characters loose, tell a meaningful story, and that’s exactly what CHILDREN’S CRUSADE recaptures, and although the release schedule is a little loose (out of nine issues, begun in 2010, eight have been released, with five this year, and I got #s 4 and 8 in 2011), which I suppose reflects my current reading capabilities just fine. Now I only hope that I’ll be able to catch the final issue…

Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey previously collaborated on ACTION PHILOSOPHERS, this year finished up (with #s 5 & 6) this history of comic books, which became more interesting (not previously ranked) the less competition it had from actual comic books. Go figure.

Ranked 19th last year, but pulled up nicely with the handful of issues I was able to catch (later issues apparently sold really well and I was only belatedly able to catch the conclusion), with writers Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi finishing strong, although truthfully of all the things affected by the relaunch, I think this series was the hardest hit.

One of my early favorites in the year didn’t even rank in 2010, even though half the series was released by the time 2011 came around. For some reason my appreciation for Paul Cornell really shot up once my comics reading slowed down. I caught #4 on release, but had to wait until the trade collection to finish the rest of the story, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is exactly what I like about DC, that it can have an incredible variety of storytelling without trying very hard, even with characters some might have been tempted to take too seriously considering their connection to Grant Morrison’s big new Batman concept. Cornell simply had some fun with a very British perspective on superheroes, and it was some of the most refreshing material I’ve read.

I did a poor job of actually reading a Flash ongoing series, in either iteration, this year, catching #s 9 & 12 of the Geoff Johns book that ran into FLASHPOINT and then only the first issue of the New 52 version spearheaded by fast-rising talent Francis Manapul. I don’t know, it seems like every time Johns writes a Flash series, it takes me a while to actually appreciate it, even though he clearly had a big idea for Barry Allen and chose to spend his most recent experience writing the character solo preparing him for his biggest story, which is certainly not a bad thing, and allowed him to then continue concentrating on Green Lantern and some new projects. Manapul is at this point a far more interesting artist than he is a writer, and I have tended to prefer the writing to the art, no matter how good it is, in a Flash series. Maybe that’ll change in 2012. Who knows? Johns previously reached 30th on this series in 2010, but nailed the 2nd spot with his combination of THE FLASH: REBIRTH and BLACKEST NIGHT: THE FLASH in 2009.

15. ATOMIC ROBO (Red 5)
Another big loser in my reduced capacity was Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener’s fantastic robot monster fighter, who like Jeff Smith’s RASL also has a connection to Nikola Tesla (by cosmic coincidence). I was only able to catch their annual Free Comic Book Day appearance, which I guess was enough. I keep hoping that Robo will catch on in at least cult-sized way, because I think he’s at least good enough to become the next Hellboy. It doesn’t help that he’s Red 5’s only significant property. Previously ranked 20th in 2009 and 33rd in 2010.

16. MYSTIC (Marvel)
One of the CrossGen relaunches under the Marvel banner, my main interest was writer G. Willow Wilson, who wrote the two-time 1st-ranked AIR (2009 and 2010), cancelled well before its time. MYSTIC is a story about two friends who become separated by opposing fortune in a community that approaches magic in a very OWS kind of way, and is a very fun read.

Of all the launches in the New 52, this was the one I was most nervous about, considering Dick Grayson’s sketchy publishing history in a Nightwing book for the past five years, but I was pleased to discover that Kyle Higgins and Eddy Barrows have probably come up with the best material since Chuck Dixon and Devin Grayson (with Marv Wolfman coming in third and then maybe Peter Tomasi, the last writer in the previous series). I will be keeping my eye out for this one no matter if I’m reading or “reading” comics.

When everyone was going gaga over MOUSE GUARD, I had to scratch my head, because I knew there had to be something better than that, and lo, there came MICE TEMPLAR, which definitely was. Previously ranked at 29th in 2007, 36th in 2008, 14th in 2009, and 35th in 2010, Brian J.L. Glass has ably taken the reigns of his co-creation with Michael Avon Oeming, weaving a modern fantasy epic that’s as distinctive as the material it takes as inspiration is impressive, some of the most well-known narratives in literary history (you can read about that sort of thing in the back of every issue thanks to Jeff Turnham). The sole issue I read this year, #6, was easily enough to remind me just how awesome this work has become.

Eric Shanower and Skottie Young continue to provide the greatest service to modern readers in comics today by adapting the virtually forgotten original Oz tales from creator L. Frank Baum, and demonstrating just how ridiculously creative he really was, like the Tim Burton of his day (who better to make a new Oz film, right?), and though I read a combined two issues from the two mini-series published during the year, it was enough to keep the spirit alive for me. I’ve previously ranked their efforts at 33rd in 2009 and 24th in 2010.

Another big victim of my 2011 reading capacity was James Robinson’s much-anticipated follow-up to STARMAN, which has apparently been getting terrible readership overall, which is itself terrible, because even just from the first issue, I could tell he was bringing his A-game, something he hasn’t done since JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRY FOR JUSTICE (which ranked 5th in 2009). Maybe DC erred by launching this beauty only a month after the big New 52 initiative, but for some readers, this was probably more anticipated.

21. STEEL (DC)
A one-shot released early in the year, written by Steve Lyons, this was ostensibly the opening salvo of the big Doomsday crossover, but was far better read as a refresher course on everything that made John Henry Irons special in the first place, something that’d been overlooked for more than a decade, and thankfully not after Grant Morrison’s new ACTION COMICS. Deserves to be remembered as such.

I wish I’d known that Jonathan Hickman really would be firing on all cylinders by #600, because I probably would have made a greater effort to read more of it (and maybe FF), given that he seems to have approached writing the series less like a comic book and more like a TV show. Any idiot could (and many did) have guessed that Johnny Storm didn’t necessarily die after the events of the much-hyped #587, but it took a lot of guts to actually write a lot about what actually happened to him upon his actual return. I was guilty of being a little prejudice against Hickman’s ambitions. It’s definitely something to consider when looking at 2012.

I guess not everyone is as crazy for the classic SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL creative team of Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove, but for me, their reunion was easily the highlight of DC’s series of one-shots celebrating past eras. I loved most of 1990s Superman, but they were always some of my favorites, and their presence has been sorely missed.

Most people are perfectly willing to associate Grant Morrison with the best Buddy Baker material, and with good reason. It’s enough to say that Jeff Lemire is finally giving Morrison a run for his money.

A lot of people were hoping that BRIGHTEST DAY was a preview of sorts for some other franchises Geoff Johns could dig into, and he fulfilled some of that promise by tackling Aquaman in the New 52. Another series to keep an eye on in the coming year.

J. Michael Straczynski’s “Odyssey,” like his Superman story “Grounded,” ended up becoming a casualty to other commitments, and Phil Hester did his best to salvage it early in the year, and I think he was off to a good start, but I also didn’t have a problem abandoning it when I had to abandon a lot of stuff, not because of Hester (who I wish could enjoy far greater success than he does), but because I think Joe didn’t really consider enough material for the length of story he’d planned. Thankfully, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang started fresh with the relaunch, and can potentially have the best run Wonder Woman has ever seen on their hands. Definitely a book to reckon with in 2012.

Another returning pair that I was delighted to revisit was Ron Marz and Darryl Banks, who handled with a considerable amount of flare the debut of Kyle Rayner all those years ago, and so all those little touches that were signatures of their run were real fun to see again. The reprint at the back of the issue, surprisingly, was less enjoyable, now feeling considerably dated (at least in the unflattering style of swimwear some artists seem to favor, like Banks and Dan Jurgens).

A mini-series that run with an intriguing mash-up last seen in NIGHTWING: YEAR ONE, this was a definite perk of FLASHPOINT, exploring odd bit of continuity that could easily have supported itself in an Elseworlds-style book (because that’s basically what the whole event was about, with fairly loose interconnection). J.T. Krul is easily one of the DC writers who received a notable downgrade in his stature after the big relaunch, which was a shame.

Another perk of FLASHPOINT is that it served as an unofficial tie-in to the Green Lantern movie also released over the summer, and this mini-series written by Adam Schlagman clearly had the pilot glimpsed in the movie on its mind, a what-if scenario that proved Hal would be a hero with or without the ring.

This is a series that has ranked consistently in the past, from 23rd in 2007 to 40th in 2008, 35th in 2009, and finally 21st in 2010, so always somewhere around the middle of the pack. There have certainly been moments I really enjoyed in the title, and Tony Bedard’s “Weaponer” arc certainly ranks among them. I made it a point to sample each of the Green Lantern titles in the relaunch, but I’m not sure I found any of them as essential as Geoff Johns’ work in the flagship.

Geoff Johns was one of the hands involved in this particular movie prequel, which reads like an alternate version of what was seen on the big screen. In case you hadn’t guessed, I was a big fan of the movie.

This was a title I was excited about when I first read about the series involved in the New 52 relaunch, and the one issue I sampled demonstrated that Judd Winick and certainly artist Ben Oliver probably justified my faith in this spin-off from the Batman, Incorporated concept.

Because hey, who’s really going to argue about new material from the team of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire?

34. SPIDER-GIRL (Marvel)
The one issue (#4) I read featured “Kraven’s Next Hunt,” a spin-off from the incredible “Grim Hunt” saga that helped launch AMAZING SPIDER-MAN to 17th last year, and that was enough to land the whole series on this list.

IDW in general has done a really good job with its Star Trek comics (hitting 26th and 31st for various projects in 2009), and this new ongoing series seeks to reinterpret the original TV series through the lens of the J.J. Abrams reboot, which at worst is incredibly bold and certainly another book to keep an eye on.

36. SUPREME POWER (Marvel)
When I heard this dude named Kyle Higgins was being entrusted with Dick Grayson in the New 52, I became a little nervous, and started sampling the projects he was releasing in 2011, which included this latest iteration of the Marvel interpretation of the Justice League. Suffice to say, I liked what I saw.

The smartest thing Brian Michael Bendis ever did was introduce a new Spider-Man. It was the thing he absolutely needed to do after establishing that new record with Mark Bagley in the original Ultimate comics. This may be his superhero legacy.

38. VENGEANCE (Marvel)
For some reason, Marvel started releasing a bunch of off-beat mini-series that answered to nothing but themselves, and this Joe Casey ditty was among them. I’m still not sure I entirely understood what I saw, but I liked it.

It was Geoff Johns who received all the benefits of the story, but it was Tony Bedard who officially launched Sinestro into his bold new era in this two-volume epilogue to the crossover. Y’know, strictly speaking for the record.

40. AVENGERS 1959 (Marvel)
Howard Chaykin is an iconic creator I will try my best to cherish for as long as he continues producing new material. This is his offbeat look at a prior incarnation of the Marvel superteam, which includes the eclectic mix of Nick Fury, Kraven, Sabretooth, and Namora.

Fudging just a tiny bit, including issues #15 & 16, one of which was actually released in 2010, rounding out David Hine’s strongest stories with Michael Lane (“Killer of Saints” got him 14th last year).

This entry is understood to represent material created by Tony Daniel, and so straddles pre- and post-New 52 alignments. Most readers seem to favor Scott Snyder these days, and so the natural order would seem to be the reverse of what I’ve detailed here, but Daniel continues to be my man for alternate Batman tales (his work previously reached 45th in both 2009 and 2010). He seems to have the most fun out of creators not named Grant Morrison (possibly because they worked together during “R.I.P.”), so it’s an easy call for me.

Grant Morrison wasn’t solely responsible for last year’s rank of 18th (but he was for 2009’s 8th), but combinations of Paul Cornell & Scott McDaniel, Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleason, and Judd Winick & Jason Todd helped to compensate for his complete absence in 2011. I haven’t read the book since the relaunch, though I remain pleased that Tomasi and Gleason (who were so good together in GREEN LANTERN CORPS and BRIGHTEST DAY) were tapped as creators, both before and after.

No fictional city in comics has received as much attention as Gotham, and it was again the subject of intriguing material from emerging superstars Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins. I have a feeling that this story would have been more significant had it been told in an ongoing series, even the cancelled STREETS OF GOTHAM (would have been appropriate, anyway).

45. CHARMED (Zenescope)
My sister is a big fan of the late WB series, and so through her I’ve maintained a link to the Paul Ruditis comic launched last year. It’s not bad, really.

I’ve always wondered why DC hasn’t found more excuses to tell stories revolving around one of the most famous characters in Green Lantern lore, the one who happened to famously die in his first appearance. Again, thanks to the movie released this summer, the company had excuse enough to populate FLASHPOINT with scenarios that would get around the awkward fact that technically speaking, Abin Sur is dead. In the altered reality of FLASHPOINT, he’s still Green Lantern. Then White Lantern!

Mike Carlin wrote this one-shot that introduced a new character into DC lore, one who will hopefully pop up again later!

Before Francis Manapul there was Scott Kolins, another Geoff Johns collaborator who began as an artist and then branched out as a writer. I thought out of all the FLASHPOINT spin-offs, this would have a good chance of standing out, and at least for me, I wasn’t wrong. This one will probably be one of the more fun ones to read on its own in a few years.

I’m cheating again, because the issues I’m referring to happen to straddle 2010 and 2011, specifically #s 7 & 8, featuring J.T. Krul and Mike Mayhew’s visionary Oliver Queen-as-Robin-Hood (more literally than ever before!) work, in the mystical forest where he teams up with Galahad, a character I thought had great potential. Hopefully at some point they can reunite, Krul and Mayhew, I mean!

See above for the general prelude, but I was also pleased to find Michael Green (one of the writers involved in the movie’s screenplay, along with Marc Guggenheim, whose RESURRECTION I sorely missed during the year, and a few others) and Patrick Gleason involved in this one.


Complete listing of QB editions (these links are almost uniformly bad at this point, except for the last two):


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Action Comics #4

writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Rags Morales

What reads like a perfection of comics various creators basically botched very recently (except Geoff Johns in Superman: Secret Origin), Morrison continues to spin Superman's earliest adventures in Metropolis in an entirely new and interesting light by reteaming Lex Luthor with Brainiac, while also making Metallo interesting again (as an unwitting dupe of Brainiac's invasion force) and reintroducing Steel as a hero who can ably represent himself (also in a complementary backup feature by Sholly Fisch), especially in an era that seems to have been consumed by technology that only pretends to have useful functions.

Justice League #3

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Jim Lee

I'm astounded that a Justice League book can be this good. I think I've said that a number of different ways already, calling it a monthly event book, for instance, and if that's still the best way to say it, then that'll work, too. This is better than Grant Morrison's widescreen JLA, better than Brad Meltzer's, so much more confident in the exploration not only of the team as it comes together, but how the individual members represent themselves. Too easily and too often team books concentrate on trite dialogue that gives token presence to individual members when they're really just homogenizing everyone into some adventure that's supposed to be big enough for the reader to overlook this fact. The best team books overcome this basic deficiency by actually delivering on big adventure, or instead relying on the relationship game (which Young Heroes in Love parodied). Johns has been doing so many event books recently that he's perfected the formula of writing various characters with unique perspectives while simultaneously building a bigger story around them. This issue we finally meet Wonder Woman, and the approach here is so fresh, so vibrant, it's an embarrassment to every other writer who has failed to capture that same spirit through the years, instead counting on reader familiarity that has actually robbed the character of her best qualities. The good thing is that Brian Azzarello seems perfectly capable of matching that tone in the Wonder Woman ongoing. This is the best kind of flagship title, because it absolutely deserves that distinction.

Nightwing #3

writer: Kyle Higgins
artist: Eddy Barrows

Owing to the fact that I QUIT READING COMICS this year and it initially proved difficult to find issues of this particular New 52 launch, I was almost content not to read the new Nightwing book, which is basically heresy for me, since Dick Grayson has been one of my favorite comic book characters for as long as I've cared about superheroes. The previous Nightwing series took a turn for the eclectic once Devin Grayson was booted from the book, revolving through a number of writers who rebooted Dick's context so many times that it was difficult for any of them to truly get a handle on him, even Marv Wolfman, who came closest to establishing a feel that felt natural and not just distinct from what had previously been done. Higgins, as it turns out, matches what Wolfman attempted to do very nicely. I'd heard that Haly's Circus was going to be involved, but actually reading it is much like what readers were saying about Scott Snyder's Detective Comics (which was only partially accurate), getting into Dick's past in a real and meaningful way. Chuck Dixon originally set out to create a whole new world for Dick to explore, but that had been played out by the time Devin Grayson departed, and no one was able or willing to return to that world, so it's appropriate and gratifying that someone has finally and confidently begun exploring Dick's prior existence, the one Bruce Wayne basically interrupted (with the best intentions). I was one of those fans who loved that Dick had seemingly permanently gained the mantle of Batman, and so was distressed that the New 52 was booting him back into his loner's position, scared that he'd spin back into random and mostly meaningless adventures that would once again cause Dan DiDio to consider him expendable...I'm glad to report that this will not be the case, at least for the foreseeable future. This may be the best Dick Grayson in years.

The Amazing Spider-Man #673

writer: Dan Slott
artist: Stefano Caselli

I still want to go on record as stating that Slott is easily the best option to go with as a successor to the team that wrote Brand New Day for a couple of years, as he's exceedingly imaginative, and that's important when you're writing a character with as big an ADHD problem and complete lack of introspection as the legendary Spider-Man, and so I initially welcomed Big Time with open arms. Perhaps my biggest problem is that I had to par down my comics reading around that same time (before QUITTING COMICS ALTOGETHER this year), and so never really got into the feel of what he intended to do past giving Peter a job that actually made sense. This is the first regular issue of the comic that I've read in 2011 (aside from a Free Comic Book Day edition). It happens to follow Spidey's first big crossover event (ever?), Spider-Island, and is in fact the epilogue. Everyone in New York (or at least the part that was affected) is transitioning back to their normal lives, and that partially involves setting up the new Scarlet Spider, and reflects on the continuing efforts to keep Peter and MJ apart for reasons that no longer seem natural.

X-Club #1 (of 5)

writer: Simon Spurrier
artist: Paul Davidson

I remember the X-books playing around with the science-based X-Club a few years back (since I don't read them regularly, that's as much as I know without research), so I was excited when I saw this book announced, and then just as chuffed when I saw it at Barnes & Noble...The problem is that Spurrier seems to have decided that the best approach was to rip-off Atomic Robo. This would have worked better had Brian Clevinger actually been the writer (Clevinger writes the exceedingly clever Atomic Robo comics that no one reads for Red 5 and has actually written for Marvel, too), but instead Spurrier awkwardly writes the supposed geniuses of the X-Club without an ounce of integrity and instead with a parody of the usual posturing the worst comic book writers tend toward...Anyhoo, bottom line, huge disappointment, salvageable only by recognizing what it at least tried to be.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tales of the Philosophy Corps

I bought GREEN LANTERN AND PHILOSOPHY on May 21st. I know this because I kept the receipt as a bookmark. I started reading it that evening, and kept it around as light reading material for the remainder of the year. “Light reading” indeed; as the title suggests, this one’s got some heavy thinking in mind. Part of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series edited by William Irwin, it was probably one of the more notable releases this year, timed to coincide with the movie that was supposed to explode the Green Lantern mythos into the mainstream consciousness.

That didn’t actually happen, and I can only imagine what anyone who didn’t realize that was supposed to happen must have thought if they happened upon this book. Maybe much the same as any of the others in the series, which mostly cover TV shows and superheroes with a prominent movie. For me, it was an awesome publishing event. Years ago I picked up a role-playing guide that taught me most of what I came to know about Green Lantern lore; this is like an updated version of that. Of course, it’s also about Green Lantern and philosophy.

A team of eighteen academics write a total of twenty articles (from “The Blackest Night for Aristotle’s Account of Emotions” to “Magic and Science in the Green Lantern Mythos: Clarke’s Law, the Starheart, and Emotional Energy”), comparing Green Lantern comics and how writers have presented emerald-colored heroics to historical thought about power from history’s greatest minds. Some of the articles delve pretty deeply into the comics; others use them as mere launching points for whatever they really wanted to talk about. The most astonishing thing is that there is fantastic amount of Green Lantern material covered, both famous and obscure, so that if you want to, you can read this book merely to gain greater insight into the franchise. I happen to not mind all the philosophizing, even if much of it isn’t very deep, and the quality of the essays can vary wildly, but I guess that’s to be expected from a group project.

Hal Jordan receives most of the attention, and his adventures from “Hard-Traveling Heroes” to JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRY FOR JUSTICE are covered, but a lot of the work Geoff Johns has been doing is also featured, making you appreciate all the more concepts like the emotional spectrum. None of this was authorized by DC Comics, but no one’s trying to redefine anything so much as think a little deeper. I got the feeling that Green Lantern was an ideal subject for this kind of project, considering the sheer breadth of the material, so it’s something of a shame that a movie had to be made for someone to authorize it.

Love that “No Evil Shall Escape This Book” is included as a kind of slogan.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quarter Bin #25 "Bane and Superman"

It’s kind of funny to be writing about Bane and Superman in one column (to be perfectly accurate, though, it’s because of the back issue bins at Escape Velocity in Colorado Springs and what I found on that particular day), since Bane was more or less created to be an evil version of Doc Savage, who is a precursor to Superman…

Anyway, let’s just dive in!

From January 1993:

This is the first appearance of that hulking figure Tom Hardy will be playing in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES next summer. I’m so glad that Hardy is playing him, and that it’s Christopher Nolan and his creative team conceiving this incarnation of Bane, since it seems just about no one since Bane’s earliest appearances has been able to figure out just what Bane is supposed to be. Simply put, Bane is Batman’s opposite number, someone who got an exceedingly bad break and chose to handle it by perfecting himself. Where Bruce Wayne became a vigilante who tried to correct injustice, Bane (no real name has ever been given to him in the comics) chose to exert his resulting might to control rather than react (an interesting distinction, especially for the purposes of Nolan’s vision, since Batman was last seen crossing that line). Batman’s parents were murdered as innocents, whereas Bane’s father was someone who’d eluded the law, forcing Bane’s mother and then Bane himself as a newborn to face justice in his place. Batman grew up knowing the world firsthand; Bane grew up in prison and learned everything in books. This origin issue explains all this (there’s a sequel from after the “Knightfall” saga and Bruce Wayne’s return that sees Bane rededicate himself to more noble causes), plus introduces his relationship to the Venom toxin that for so many creators after Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan became almost the complete story of his character, his obsession and dependency on a steroid that fueled not only his strength but apparently uncontrollable rage (as if he had become a human-sized Hulk), something that was really only a problem, in this stage of storytelling, when he faced Jean-Paul Valley’s armored version of Batman. Presented here, Venom is something that was added to him after he’d already perfected himself, and so it became just another weapon in his arsenal, not the sole means for his strength or even the method behind his menace. It was his mind, and a conscious decision to seek out the one man who might rival him, as he’d learned in prison (again, before the Venom), that motivated Bane to take on the challenge of Batman. Perhaps after next year, DC will once again take him seriously, rather than let him wallow in minor titles and in circumstances that aren’t befitting a character like…Bane.

From March 1993:

Following “Doomsday,” after the entire real world had become convinced of the tragedy of a legendary comic book character actually dying, DC had to be very careful about taking the aftermath seriously. There was the “World without a Superman” arc that looked at the effects on Lois Lane and the rest of Metropolis, as everyone braced for the vacuum caused by the death of the Man of Steel. LEGACY OF SUPERMAN came before the “Reign of the Supermen” arc that famously introduced four possible replacements or even reincarnations (who later became known as Superboy, Steel, Cyborg, and the Eradicator). Then-current and famous Superman creators looked back at other heroes, some of whom had been forgotten then, and some which actually remain forgotten today: Karl Kesel and Walter Simonson brought us to Project Cadmus (which later produced the clone who would become Superboy), where we met with the Guardian (Jim Harper), who met his genetically-engineered and only-theoretical replacement Auron; Roger Stern and Dennis Rodier brought back Thorn, a curious hero who didn’t even know, in her secret identity, that she participated in vigilante activity; Jerry Ordway and Dennis Janke handled Gangbuster, who was most recently seen in TRINITY; William Messner-Loebs and Curt Swan tinkered with Sinbad, someone I’d never heard of, and who was probably never seen again; and Dan Jurgens unsurprisingly featured Waverider and the Linear Men. Just imagine if the Superman books (which at that time included SUPERMAN, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, ACTION COMICS, and SUPERMAN: MAN OF STEEL) had played with these heroes for a year…

From January 2001:

If he were still writing for DC today, Jeph Loeb’s SUPERMAN would probably be collected today; instead readers might be forgiven to believe Loeb didn’t write the Man of Steel (after FOR ALL SEASONS, that is) until SUPERMAN/BATMAN. Then again, readers might still not appreciate it, since the general opinion for some reasons believes that Loeb isn’t much of a writer, and that’s a terrible shame, since he has a distinctive style that puts a deliberate focus on the inner life of the characters he writes. Frequent collaborator Ed McGuinness supplies some of the art in this issue, which features Jimmy Olsen, Bizarro, and the run-up to “President Luthor” (more on that in a moment), and so on the surface doesn’t feature a lot of introspective material. Except Loeb is one of the masters of captions, an art I hope isn’t as endangered as it currently seems.

From March 2001:

Ah! And so we see that DC actually allowed Lex Luthor to become president! Perhaps one of the last great developments from the momentum the 1990s Superman creative teams produced, Luthor had been through so many epiphanies that he went from the traditional foe who had actually fatally poisoned himself with Kryptonite to a methodical and manipulative genius who still ended up getting his way, first by becoming his own son and then returning to reclaim his empire and solidifying his new power by forming an alliance with the Contessa, someone who literally took the fall for him, so that he could then take his false image as a legitimate businessman and benefactor to humanity to the next level, once he’d seen that Superman was still more beloved than he was. So he became President. This special outlines the whole process, as only the SECRET FILES specials could. But that was a different time. Today we once again enjoy a Luthor more closely tied to his origins (best illustrated by Paul Cornell, Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns), since really, who would buy that Lex could ever become President? Naturally, a scandal brought him down, eventually.

From January 2002:

After “Our Worlds at War,” what was at that time the biggest event of the previous decade, Superman famously modified his costume to replace the yellow in the S-shield with black, a symbolic gesture to represent the fact that even he recognized that the world was no longer a simple place. (It remains a great irony that this transformation occurred at the same time as 9/11.) Jeph Loeb is still writing our Man of Steel, this time with art from Ian Churchill; the story features a therapy session for Superman while he otherwise battles that era’s incarnation of General Zod, the continuing effects of “OWAW,” and a separation from Lois. At that time, DC was doing just about everything it could think of to try and make Superman relevant to readers again (which eventually led to Manchester Black), without resorting to a reboot. Turns out the reboot would have been easier, as long as everyone else joined in (*cough* “New 52”).

As a collection these issues represent what different creators and eras can have on characters, their presentation and potential, and still only covers about a decade. That’s one of the true virtues of comic books. Some fans may bitch and moan about it, but really, what other medium can so consistently allow such continual reinvention on so broad a spectrum with the same basic creations?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Comic Book Comics #6

written by Fred Van Lente
art by Ryan Dunlavey

The last issue in the comic book series about comic books, their history and important trends, from one of my favorite creators, Fred Van Lente, who previously collaborated with Dunlavey on Action Philosophers. Here the duo try to peer into the future, looking at the art of the graphic novel, its surprising origins, as well as manga, and just why you buy comics the way you do, in specialty stores, rather than the convenience shops of years past. The thing that was great about this series was that it was remarkably insightful, compiling an incredible amount of information into an entertaining narrative that never felt like an academic exercise. Here's hoping Van Lente and Dunlavey collaborate again soon!

Justice League #2

written by Geoff Johns
art by Jim Lee

The flagship of the "New 52" deserves that distinction in that it's like an event book as a regular series. In this issue, Green Lantern and Batman, whose close encounter began the series, now contend with Superman, who in the DCnU reckoning is almost a wild card for the first time, unpredictable. Here he's a being of immense power, whom Green Lantern is surprised to find capable of overcoming even the abilities of his ring. Batman, meanwhile, is just as formidable, thanks to his extraordinary mind. These are all strong-willed individuals, distrustful of each other. Yet they are destined to form one of the greatest alliances in comic book history. It's as if Johns is approaching the League the way Jeph Loeb famously did Superman and Batman alone last decade.

Lest you believe this is just about three particular heroes, bonus material helps introduce how this book will approach Wonder Woman, while Johns also continues introducing Cyborg, including a strong emphasis on his origins.

RASL #12

written and illustrated by Jeff Smith

Alongside Grant Morrison's Batman, Inc., his "New 52" Action Comics, and Geoff Johns' Green Lantern, this is the book I've continually felt compelled to read following the 2011 decision to give up reading new comics (for financial reasons).

I've been a fan of Smith since Bone, one of the great fantasy epics of our time, and so when RASL launched a few years ago, I thought it was a great idea to give Smith's new baby a try, and I was immediately struck by how different it was from Bone, not that the art was much different, but that the tone was so much more demanding. It hasn't always been easy to see just where Jeff was going with this one, why it should be worth reading individual issues, since he's taken a very deliberate pace in his storytelling this time around. It's a mystery series at heart, trying to figure out just why Rob is jumping between realities, why he's on the run, and what it has to do with Nikola Tesla.

The Tesla link, once it was revealed, once the series really started to explore it, became my favorite element. Tesla is one of the great scientific geniuses, but he's sunk into relative obscurity since his death, eclipsed by his rival, Thomas Edison, and certainly Einstein, even though it could be argued that he accomplished a lot more than either of them, and could've done so much more had he not run aground of resistance. This particular issue expands on his troubles, and actually helps to explain the benefit of an episodic approach, cliffhangers that make the reader ever more curious about where exactly everything's headed.

In a lot of way, RASL is very similar to Fringe, and that's something I didn't really think about until now. I believe that I will have further occasion to meditate on that connection in the future.

By the end of the month, you'll see where the series ranks on my annual QB50 ranking. But you can bet it'll be among my favorites, regardless of how many comics I've read in 2011.

Green Lantern: More Star Wars than Superhero

For a while, I kind of hoped that the fan community would help redeem Green Lantern. I thought it wasn't an unreasonable belief, since comic book fans have helped make the comic books themselves one of the most popular franchises in recent years, given the efforts of Geoff Johns as recently as Blackest Night, a cornerstone DC event.

Except comic book fans still flocked to Marvel films like X-Men: First Class and rejected Green Lantern as at best an irredeemable mess. I'm still surprised by this reaction.

I had dreamed about a Green Lantern film for more than a decade, envisioning how I myself would shape some of the defining stories ("Emerald Dawn," "Hard-Traveling Heroes," "Emerald Twilight") into a big screen epic, a trilogy that would take its place alongside Star Wars as a treasured experience. Fans in the 1990s had already begun to compare the two franchises, so it's not as if even now I'm proposing anything new.

The problem is that most fans today, as well as casual viewers, can only seem to think about Green Lantern as a superhero, when he's been demonstrated to be so much more, not the least by Geoff Johns, but throughout his publishing history. At best Spider-Man's "With great responsibility" line is the only true comparable superhero experience. Green Lantern is a space cop, not a superhero.

You might even think of him, of Hal Jordan, and the rest of the GL Corps, as an alternate band of Jedi knights.

Something George Lucas never got around to doing, even in his second trilogy, was exploring a Jedi who wasn't invested in some cosmic destiny. At worst, that's exactly what Hal Jordan represented, all the way back in Showcase #22, accepting the ring of the dying Abin Sur and being inducted into an intergalactic organization invested with patrolling the cosmos, one sector at a time, wielding an awesome ring capable of just about anything. On the surface, and especially on his home planet of Earth, Hal seemed to become just another superhero, except that his responsibilities often took him into space, facing threats that originated on other worlds, interacting not with other heroes but other members of the Corps.

Hal Jordan's secret origin as Green Lantern has nothing to do with some deep personal crisis or revelation, but rather his induction into something far greater than himself.

Just as Luke Skywalker stumbled into the heart of the fight between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire, something that until that point had been beyond the realm of his wildest dreams, Hal learns that until he received Abin Sur's ring, humans were hardly considered noteworthy.

Luke, of course, learns that he has a far greater role to play than he imagined when he discovers that he's the son of Darth Vader, one of the most feared individuals in the galaxy, which goes well beyond training to become a Jedi. In Green Lantern, Hal struggles to overcome his personal problems, let alone figuring out what it means to be a member of the Corps, while events greater than him gradually reveal his connection to the threat of Parallax, a being representative of the fear Hal has spent his life trying to figure out.

The difference of the approaches Star Wars and Green Lantern take produce markedly different results, but they're far more similar than is at first apparent. Star Wars is an adventure experience, first and foremost, whether you talk about the first or second trilogies. The first, the original three films, is a lot more gritty, while the second represents a more slick production sense, that attempts to immerse the viewer in a sense of the scale of events. Think of it this way: Luke, Han and Leia are always running away from something, whereas Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme are always running toward something. All the same, events play out in parallel ways, in a dawning awareness; a struggle to accept identity; and finally, fulfillment of destiny.

Green Lantern compresses these arcs into a single story, and so proceeds with breakneck speed to introduce characters and situations so that Hal's acceptance of not only his new role but of himself is intertwined with a foe (Hector Hammond) who represents a completely opposite trajectory, something Star Wars had to achieve over the course of six films (contrasting Luke with his father Anakin). Hal in essence becomes a Jedi who doesn't know the conflict between the two sides of the Force (but his theoretical pal Sinestro will), who is instead simply trying to find his way into the apparently natural order of things.

What results is a film that tries to be cosmic and human at the same time, doesn't really treat the superhero at the heart of it as a superhero, choosing to introduce the idea of the responsibility of the power ring as something that erases doubt and difference, obscures the line between good and evil, without stepping outside familiar territory, but rather embracing it.

The funny thing is, it's only confusing if you allow it to be, if you approach Green Lantern as a film about a superhero, rather than as an exploration of mankind approaching its potential, which just so happens to include aliens who would rather be our friends and companions than enemies. Even Star Wars used aliens that way, and that's what I thought would help viewers distinguish what the movie really was, versus inappropriate and misleading expectations that only obscured the worth of the actual product.

For me, Green Lantern was more expansive than I had thought it could be, and so was far more than a movie based on some of my favorite comics. Maybe it didn't hurt that I already liked the ideas, not so much that I was familiar with them but that I had already thought about them. It was easier for me to like the film because I was prepared, and since I already liked the kind of movie it ultimately proved to be. For that reason, I still hold out hope that others will eventually come to view it as the kind of success I found it to be.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Quarter Bin #24 "Aztek"

One of the more intriguing elements of Grant Morrison’s backstory is his involvement with the career of Mark Millar. Today it’s a moot subject, and there is no longer any kind of relationship, but as early as fifteen years ago, they were working under the same roof and in fact working very closely together, whether on THE FLASH or collaborating on an experimental superhero in the pages of AZTEK: THE ULTIMATE MAN.

Millar has become one of the cornerstone creators at Marvel while Morrison has been a DC man since departing NEW X-MEN (or, when Xorn was still known, and as an alternate version of Magneto). Millar’s best-known DC work is SUPERMAN: RED SUN, though he also wrote for Vertigo. Aside from Brian Michael Bendis, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-established “architect” at the House of Ideas. He is also responsible for WANTED and KICK-ASS, among other projects, and for a time represented the next generation of comic book visionaries, no doubt a prospect that appealed to him, since that’s a role Morrison held before him and retains to this day, long after days he was supposed to pass the baton to Millar.

Well, they’ll always have Aztek. A hero who later claimed his payoff in Morrison’s JLA storyline “World War Three,” the erstwhile Ultimate Man was an attempt to create a modern hero, one who was trained into the role and given a clear purpose. His series ran from 1996-97, a mere ten issues, victim to low readership, another new character who failed to stick (and has yet to be resurrected in the new millennium, much less the “New 52”). I’m afraid I’m a part of his misfortunes, since I read the first few issues, but for some reason abruptly stopped, even though I’d thoroughly enjoyed what I’d seen. I can’t account for that decision now, but as I’ve repeatedly stated in the Quarter Bin column, one of the great joys of being a comics reader is that the past is always a part of the present, back issues being an obsessive hobby that rivals new releases for the modern fan.

I was cataloguing my comics, actually, when I finally got around to prompting myself to read more AZTEK. DC released a trade collection of the series, but once again I had other priorities, even though I was happy to see that it had not been entirely forgotten. The actual impetus was the letters column of an issue I had gotten back in the day, referencing an appearance by the Joker, which was said to be definitive. Knowing as I knew at that point how important Grant Morrison writing the Joker actually is, I felt I had to read it for myself. I made a trip to Escape Velocity in Colorado Springs and found a pretty good selection of the series, and that’s where the following comes from:

From October 1996:

This issue is probably an important one for fans to have read at the time, since it illustrates perhaps better than preceding installments how much thought Morrison and Millar put into their concept, which embraced not only the central hero and the peculiar city of Vanity, but an idea of the hero-and-villain community that went well beyond convention. The thing I’d originally admired about AZTEK was that it felt like the future Mark Waid had envisioned in KINGDOM COME, where heroes become more violent and less calculating. That thought is expanded in this issue, as Morrison and Millar shape the backstory for the figure Aztek previously defeated, a crazy mix of hero and villain, where it’s revealed that he was once a very clear-cut, actually stereotypical hero with a partner, who had her share of tragedy even before Aztek appeared, and so her mourning process, which is in itself unique to AZTEK, becomes a further mark of distinction for the series, even before we’ve properly delved into the central character’s own particulars. In hindsight, the creators are attempting an incredibly ambitious thing here, all the more for starting with a totally new hero. That is recipe for disaster.

From November 1996:

Let’s skip this one, because even I thought it didn’t help the series find an audience, like it was Morrison and Millar trying a little too hard to drag Vertigo into DC proper.

From December 1996:

Here’s another key issue, since it expands on Aztek’s origins, by introducing an inadvertent rival in the Lizard King, a predecessor in the line of warriors developed by the Q Society who believes he can replace our hero as the Ultimate Man. What he fails to realize is that Aztek is the culmination of the project, and therefore the only one who can fit the bill (until we learn that, like Luke Skywalker, there is another, who later briefly appears in Morrison’s JLA). The whole concept of Aztek hinges on the legend of Quetzalcoatl, a name grade school scholars may recall from the annals of Spanish exploration in the New World, and is perhaps a little more elaborate, or outside the realm of typical comic book storytelling, so that Morrison himself later simplifies everything to “Lex Luthor” in JLA.

From January 1997:

Here at last in the Joker issue. I guess I was a little surprised that the story is actually pretty tame, more subdued, less madcap than I had been expecting, maybe not exactly what DC readers were getting at that point (perhaps appropriately enough, the character had been neutered since his “Death in the Family” heyday to a shadow of himself, a joke in “Knightfall”); I mean, it’s pretty lunatic, but not exactly the psychological portrait in ARKHAM ASYLUM (the first decade of the new millennium is responsible, we must then assume, for a lot more of what we think about the Joker than we might previously have expected). Batman, for the record, does make an appearance.

From May 1997:

The finale, featuring Amazo and his creator Professor Ivo, locked in a complicated dance, is basically Aztek’s induction into the Justice League, which was probably intended from the start, but is kind of a letdown for anyone who might have expected closure within the character’s own book, even if it came to a premature end. (The letters column features a particularly insightful rant about readers failing to live up to their end of the bargain that is perhaps more noteworthy than anything in the rest of AZTEK; if you’re interested to know what it says, consider that your personal incentive to track down some of these back issues.) Even in the age of the “New 52,” it’s hard to see DC rolling the dice with another series like this, which tries to reinvent just about everything about traditional superhero comics, and that’s something of a shame. The fact that Morrison went back to the drawing board, reinvested himself in some of the more basic tropes, and that Millar has been trying to cater directly to a moviegoer’s perspective, can’t be a coincidence (or maybe it is and I just like to read too much into things; for the record, it’s a fun hobby all in itself!), after an experiment like this, a kind of spectacular failure. They both came away from AZTEK with a distinct perspective of where to go next, should they ever try again. In a way, it’s not hard to see how they couldn’t work together again.

Quoting Poe

A lot of people don’t seem to believe that apparently disparate interests can co-exist, or can be adequately reconciled. There’s one stereotype, for instance, that readers of books can’t also be readers of comic books, or that if they somehow are, there are bound to be deficiencies in their critical thinking. Readers of comic books, for instance, probably need to rely on things like variations of ILLUSTRATED CLASSICS to appreciate the written word by itself, adaptations that translate known material to a form they can digest, that shares the same patterns.

All of this is to say, nah, I don’t believe that, not for one minute. Maybe I really am the rare readers who can appreciate Melville’s CONFIDENCE-MAN and, say, JOE PSYCHO & MOO-FROG, I don’t know. I only know that inspiration is inspiration, and sometimes, those lines can be blurred more than most people are apparently willing to admit.

NEVERMORE: A GRAPHIC ADAPTATION OF EDGAR ALLAN POE’S SHORT STORIES is a prime example. Poe is one of the giants of American literature, someone every school kid has some experience with, whether from “The Raven” or “The Tell-tale Heart,” both among the ten short stories, including a biography that highlights suitably unsettling aspects of his death, featured in this collection. A bevy of small-press creators come together to offer their interpretations of Poe’s works, some shifting the timeframes a little, but each of them remaining faithful to the original scripts, psychological tales that remain as compelling today as when they were originally published.

Perhaps the element that truly makes them pop is that the artwork is in black and white, a format that few fans seem willing to embrace (perhaps not so surprising, given that modern comics virtually pride themselves in the sophistication of their coloring).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Action Comics #3

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Rags Morales

I've been following this series from its launch EVEN THOUGH I'M NOT READING COMICS ANYMORE as a cornerstone of the "New 52." Morrison has gotten to do exactly what he wants to with Superman, as has the group of creators behind the DCnU, but it's hard to argue that anyone has done anything quite as revelatory as this one.

Aside from the new look (returning to the original concept, actually), Superman has been brought back down to earth as a strange visitor from another world, as if Morrison were revisiting the "New Krypton" story from a more confident perspective, complete with Lex Luthor conspiring with General Lane and Brainiac. This is a Superman who feels like he crosses the divide between Morrison's own All Star work and Geoff Johns' Secret Origin, two of the more definitive Man of Steel stories of the past decade.

The issue includes a look at the other Superman family titles from the "New 52," just in case you don't know which one's the flagship. If you're going to relaunch Action Comics, then Grant Morrison is the way to go.

Batgirl #3

Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Ardian Syaf

There may be two redemptions underway in this book: not only is Barbara Gordon reclaiming her mobility and heroic identity, but Gail Simone is finding a way to play to her strengths as a creator.

I didn't much care for Simone in Wonder Woman, and her cult work in Secret Six, for me, wasn't just irreverent, but irrelevant. With Babs, she seems to have found a purpose, combining her perspective with Batgirl's. This particular issue features a guest appearance from Nightwing, otherwise known as half of a schoolyard crush from earlier days. The beauty of the appearance is that it speaks both to a part of comics lore that many fans still admire (but perhaps, like Babs and Dick Grayson, don't actually need anymore) as well as the continuing evolution of both characters.

I hadn't particularly expected to care all that much for this particular element of the "New 52," but this is the kind of issue that can totally transform perspectives.

Green Lantern #3

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Doug Mahnke

One of two books from the "New 52" I've been attempting to follow even though I'M NOT READING COMICS ANYMORE, Sinestro's bid for redemption has been riveting, especially since he's been trying to pin it on his biggest rival, Hal Jordan.

Since Green Lantern: Rebirth, Sinestro and Hal have had a chance to revisit their complicated relationship (Sinestro began as the Greatest Green Lantern, then traded in the green ring for a yellow one, and was the last fight Hal had before becoming Parallax), once they realized that the universe isn't actually all green and yellow. Sinestro now has Hal's ring, and has given him a manufactored replacement he himself controls, with the goal to liberate his home planet Korugar from his own corrupted Sinestro Corps.

Here's the rub, from this issue: "Emerald Twilight" featured Sinestro emerging from imprisonment in the Green Lantern Central Power Battery, a precursor to his plan to depower his own Corps by sending Hal into its equivalent Battery. Johns continues his Green Lantern saga by inverting the results...

I, Vampire #1

Writer: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Artist: Andrea Sorrentino

Fialkov (Elk's Run) is one of the big new writers to be introduced to DC readers in the "New 52." To have him on one of the riskier launches is a mark of trust on the part of the company.

For me, this is one of those classic doomed-to-fail titles, like Simon Dark, something that tries to introduce something new to regular readers, succeeds in making something special of itself, but fails in making a connection with actual readers. The difference is that I, Vampire is making a bold move for Twilight Saga fans who may now be wondering what to read next, who might have a different take on the vampire romance concept, what might happen next.

The genius of the timing is that I, Vampire is part of a high-profile relaunch that has connected with the pop culture zeitgeist, and so has a better chance of succeeding than it first seems. Fialkov is a quality writer and this is his most visible gig so far. Given that Jeff Lemire's Animal Man is getting a lot of attention, that makes it that much more likely that another horror title will be able to succeed. Whe that other horror title is I, Vampire, it seems like good news for Fialkov.

Wonder Woman #3

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Cliff Chiang

The biggest problem creators seem to have with Wonder Woman is the struggle to combine a strong presentation of her, her origins, and her ongoing heroic career. For instance: Gail Simone started out her run by revisiting Diana's origins, presenting a previously-unknown faction of Amazons who'd declared vengeance on the prepackaged savior, but quickly degenerated into generic tales that did nothing to explain why Wonder Woman should be relevant to readers. Joe Straczynski's much-hyped "Odyssey" cleverly revisited her training period, but eventually muddled it by forgetting when to advance the story. Greg Rucka got to make her controversial, and several creators after him ran with that idea, but none of them stuck around long enough for it to matter.

Azzarello has gone back to the idea of character by making Diana stick out from the rest of the Amazons, making her stand up for herself, and actually having her reject Paradise Island by her own choice. By making her a self-professed exile, he may have finally figured out what it takes to make Wonder Woman stand for something, by representing herself first and foremost. Chiang's art reflects a Greek influence more than the traditional comic book style, taking the edge off the traditional quasi-sexual look Wonder Woman normally sports.

In short, another winner of the "New 52."

Red Hood and the Outlaws #3

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Artist: Kenneth Rocafort

One of the more controversial "New 52" series, mostly because old readers assumed new readers would prefer to see Starfire as she was featured in the Teen Titans cartoon than how she's been presented in every comic book appearance ever (*cough*), and one of the books I was personally most interested in at least sampling (because I'M NOT READING COMICS ANYMORE).

This issue seemed like a great one to sample, since it dredges up what Lobdell presents as the happiest memories of main characters Red Hood (Jason Todd), Arsenal (Roy Harper) and Starfire (Koriand'r), three outsiders (but not actually calling them that probably helps make that point better at this point) struggling to move on with their lives. That Starfire managed to retain spoiled-princess-mode even in the worst possible circumstances should theoretically make her that much more interesting. That Arsenal is still defined in his own mind by a guy trying to overcome his worst moment makes more sense than his now increasingly tenuous ties to Green Arrow. That Red Hood can still manage happy thoughts about his time as Robin brings out so much more to his character than most writers and readers have considered in some time.

All this suggests that Lobdell is a perfect writer for all three, and that as a long-term deal, this is exactly what I hoped it'd be, one of the more intriguing developments of the "New 52," since all three characters have struggled in recent years to make a mark.

Freebies & Previews

General Mills Presents: Justice League #1 "Unstoppable Forces"
From a box of delicious Reece's Puffs comes this mini freebie featuring a Justice League lineup of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Aquaman, all classic costumes, from writer Scott Beatty and artist Christian Duce. The story features Shaggy Man (I believe last seen in Grant Morrison's JLA, shaved), and isn't completely terrible, just a tad simplistic (why the team would drop a mountain on an enemy and assume that'd be the end of it is never really explained). By "isn't completely terrible," I do mean it's amusing, a nice little promo for kids (and people deliberately buying delicious cereal like Reece's Puffs, possibly for the express purpose of getting this comic or its three brothers) who might then get the idea to start reading comics.

Avenging Spider-Man Daily Bugle #1
Eleven pages pulled directly from the actual comic, plus four pages of pencil art and an extended note from Stephen Wacker. It should be noted that the writer for this series is Zeb Wells, one of the "Brand New Day" writers on Amazing Spider-Man, plus the artist is Joe Madureira, who was a huge deal during the 1990s. Personally, I think he might've been surpassed in his style by Rafael Albuquerque (Blue Beetle, American Vampire), and that the central gimmick of this book, that Spidey somehow has time between his ASM adventures and Avengers (hence the title), which is brought up in the script itself, might be something of a stretch to hang a whole new book on, but it's still nice that Marvel put this preview together (yay!).

Defenders/Avengers: X-Sanction Preview Book
Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson's Defenders is another team book for Marvel, which has been swimming in Avengers books (not to mention X-Men) for years now. Fraction's main task here is to sell the necessity for another team book, and so his focus is on selling the individual members and his passion for writing them. On that score, he actually does pretty good, except the actual preview of the book, which runs four pages, doesn't actually feature any of them, instead focusing on The Hulk...Sooo, a little confused on that score.

Avengers: X-Sanction/Defenders Preview Book
Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness reunite, and the story is much the same as the flipbook, with five preview pages that barely seem to be aware that it's Cable and not the Avengers who is the main character. The difference is that I'm more familiar with Loeb than Fraction, so there's a greater chance of me trusting that Loeb will eventually do what he says he will in this dealie, which sounds extremely intriguing, given that so few Marvel books seem interested in actually delivering a payoff to a great setup (in this case Cable's origins and his recent X-Men arc as Hope's guardian; the only other instance where something like this has happened is Avengers - Children's Crusade, which finally continues what House of M began).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Quarter Bin #23 "Icons - This could be your moment"

From July 2002:

One of the things DC has periodically done is release a series of one-shots around a common theme (most recently with RETROACTIVE), perhaps most famously during “skip” week in the 1990s, and that’s the kind of thing that was most likely to escape my attention during the first time I retired from actively reading new comics, roughly 1999-2004. Ruffling through the back issues at Escape Velocity in Colorado Springs last year, I had occasion, then, to find a lot of things I had not previously known about, including the DC 1ST initiative from 2002. This particular issue caught my eye since it’s written by Geoff Johns. At the time, I had little experience with Geoff’s early work at DC (even though by that point, he’d been writing there for three years), having only really gotten a chance at the end of “Blitz” from THE FLASH in 2004, well after I’d read a lot about him secondhand. The Flash featured in this comic isn’t Wally West (or Barry Allen) but Jay Garrick, the franchise forerunner from the Golden Age, perhaps the character with the most sustained significance from the Justice Society era, mostly thanks to Mark Waid’s efforts, and as I was just beginning to realize, Geoff Johns as well (when I read the first volume of the Omnibus series that’s collecting all of Geoff’s Flash work, second one coming soon, I got to appreciate his attention to the whole family, not just Wally or Bart, in TEEN TITANS, as it may have seemed from an outsider’s perspective). Geoff’s Jay Garrick is concerned with his advancing age, and the effect on his relationship with wife Joan (something that he echoed in INFINITE CRISIS as he wrote Superman from Earth-2 and his aging Lois Lane), but he remains a vital figure, since he is only just racing Superman for the first time, in the present day. I’m not sure what other creators did in the rest of the one-shots, but it might have been natural to interpret the “first” as an actual first encounter, which would have been seen as Superman and Barry Allen’s Flash, whose races began the tradition, but instead Geoff, who was not quite in the middle of his Wally West tenure, chose to go with Jay, perhaps an indication for any current readers who may believe DC’s creators don’t have an appreciation for the past, thanks to the latest reboot. Geoff has, in fact, often been accused of adhering too closely to Silver Age sensibilities, but it’s rather his ability to blend those of every era, the distant, recent and present times that has allowed him to remain a relevant and vital creator.

From March 1998:

Alan Moore, Alan Moore…I’ll be writing a lot about him in the coming months, so I shouldn’t spend too much time here. What specifically he has to do with this book is that he became a key writer in Rob Liefeld’s Awesome comics line, a version of his Maximum and Extreme Studios, outbranched from Image for a couple of years, before Liefeld had to once again (as he has repeatedly done, more than any other Image founder) appease critics by crawling back to someone else’s house. Moore is best known for his work on SUPREME (and that’ll be a subject for another Quarter Bin), but he also pulled together a rare event book for an indy publisher, JUDGMENT DAY. This aftermath, however, really concerns the relaunch of the entire line, including a new Youngblood (a keystone of Liefeld’s efforts), Glory (basically Wonder Woman), New Men (basically the Challengers of the Unknown crossed with the X-Men), Maximage (basically Dr. Strange), the Allies (Justice League/Avengers), and Spacehunter. The effectiveness of introducing all these concepts is somewhat dubious now, since Moore only concentrated on Supreme, with some additional consideration given to Youngblood and the Allies, and Awesome otherwise pursued other projects (including KABOOM, which I will write about later), and so the thrust of this particular comic really boils down to Moore indulging some of his looser flights of fancy, reaching a somewhat common vein with Grant Morrison as concerns the uniting narrative about the Imagineer linking ancestral creators like Jack Kirby and Gil Kane, who provides the art throughout the special. As with many of Moore’s works, there is a heavy nostalgic feel, a resistance to current trends, though he clearly adopts their sensibilities…

From November 2003:

Alan Moore, this column, Part 2. The America’s Best Comics line was something he agreed to do for WildStorm, before it became an imprint at DC, and was basically his way of doing perfectly traditional comics outside the DC/Marvel system. Promethea herself was another Wonder Woman substitute, and is famously an early source for J.H. Williams III artwork, perhaps his most famous pre-Batwoman. In this particular issue, Promethea is reaching a climactic event in her career, a prophesied apocalypse, and as such has drawn other elements of the ABC line into her story, including Tom Strong (the Superman substitute). Moore’s writing is strikingly cinematic in this instance, would fit into any modern TV show or movie, yet there’s again the nostalgic bent that he clings to, always trending his themes (and characters) on things he loved as a child (with a few exceptions, like his Swamp Thing work, V FOR VENDETTA, and, one would hope, FROM HELL), updating them from a slightly more mature perspective. This being the only Promethea I’ve read to date, it’s extremely difficult to judge the series as a whole, and I have no idea how many more issues it survived, though I can’t imagine that there were much. The thing that really strikes the outsider perspective is that, contrary to the interior, the cover artwork recalls Superman meeting Spider-Man in the 1970s, both in the poses by our eponymous heroine and the visiting Tom Strong, as well as the modified logos for each character.

From November 2002:

Astute observers will note the host in this particular series for the Spirit of Vengeance would be Hal Jordan, post-DAY OF JUDGMENT, the lost Geoff Johns event from 1999, whose existing memory now rests in GREEN LANTERN:REBIRTH and GREEN ARROW: QUIVER, and virtually nonexistent otherwise. It’s weird to think now that Hal spent so much time outside of his role as GL, that he went from villainous Parallax (“Emerald Twilight, ZERO HOUR) to penitent villain (masterful FINAL NIGHT) to a soul looking for redemption and finally right back to where he started and for most readers, all it will boil down to at this point is that Parallax was the Fear manifestation planted inside the Central Power Battery by Sinestro, who infected him and ruined his reputation for a while. That DC kept the character in print for the entire time he wasn’t a Green Lantern never seemed to be enough for his fans, even though it was a truly remarkable decision on the company’s part, completely unparalleled in the medium. That he was once the Spectre ought to remain a part of his legacy. Clearly his creators in this series believed they were continuing the narrative of his life: J.M. DeMatteis resurrects Sinestro (so this issue is actually pretty historic) for the first time, a painful process that speaks to the heart of both Sinestro and Hal, their rivalry, something that did not actually remain dormant from the Silver Age to REBIRTH, as it might sometimes seem. If anyone other than Geoff Johns ever wanted to explore that relationship in depth (including the mortal struggle in GREEN LANTERN #50, second series), DeMatteis would get my vote.

From 1988:

Dean Motter is one of those visionary creators who only periodically seems to receive the respect he’s due, sometimes known for MISTER X, for instance, when critics and companies are in the mood. If anyone could have produced a sequel to the classic 1960s surreal, metaphysical, existential TV series THE PRISONER, it’s Motter, and so of course he did that, too, even though it’s been allowed to be forgotten. (Then again, when THE SIMPSONS did a parody of the show, no one seemed to understand that, either.) THE PRISONER was recently brought back to mind by a TV remake and comparisons to LOST, which would make now a perfect time to reprint this sequel. Until such time, however, I will have to content myself with its introduction, and hope I’ll be able to read the rest of it at some undefined point in the future…

From October 2006:

Fred Van Lente is better known for his superhero work, but his fans know him best as the writer for this series, which revisits historic philosophers in clever summaries of relevant thoughts and experiences. This particular issue revisits early Greek thinkers including Aristotle and the Pre-Socratics. Some readers have taken to criticizing the series by saying it trivializes and distorts its subject matter (something Van Lente gets to handle a bit of in this issue’s letters column), but seriously, if you expect any one interpretation of someone else’s thoughts or experiences to be authoritative, then that’s your bigger problem, and so I say, ACTION PHILOSOPHERS is easily one of my favorite comic book discoveries. This wasn’t my first issue (I’d love to read ’em all, since Van Lente presents a lively and concise perspective), and I am more familiar with his COMIC BOOK COMICS (covering comics history) efforts, not to mention dynamite Hercules stories with Greg Pak, but it’s a fine indication that I have more than sufficient material to claim Fred as one of my favorite creators.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The biggest story of Barry Allen's life

When Geoff Johns reintroduced Barry Allen in THE FLASH: REBIRTH, he refashioned Barry’s personal arc to include the murder of his mother by the Reverse Flash, something that haunted him his whole life, and was the driving story of FLASHPOINT. Readers of an earlier generation had a different narrative, one recently reprinted in SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE TRIAL OF THE FLASH, which featured twenty-four key issues from the last years of Barry’s life prior to his death in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, which include THE FLASH #s 323-327, 329-336, and 340-350, all the way to the end of the series, from a period that spanned 1983-1985.

Written by Cary Bates with art from Carmine Infantino, THE TRIAL OF THE FLASH covers Barry Allen’s murder of Eobard Thawne, the Reverse-Flash, and subsequent legal troubles, and actually omits a considerable amount of relevant material, including the original inciting event, Thawne’s murder of Iris Allen, Barry’s wife, in THE FLASH #275 (though helpful editor’s notes reference every issue that predates those collected in the volume).

On a par with “Death in the Family” as one of the most shocking stories of the 1980s, Barry Allen’s ordeals stretched on for years and led directly to his famous death, in a fashion Grant Morrison might have been thinking about when he so deliberately juxtaposed “Batman R.I.P.” with FINAL CRISIS, an emotional crisis followed by a character’s “death,” (though admittedly, Barry stayed dead for twenty-three years, far longer than any other revival has taken in comics, aside from Ed Brubaker’s sensational Bucky Barnes comeback story).

The trial story arc was almost doomed to remain a forgotten element of The Flash’s legacy, something Mark Waid fondly recalled and liked to reference, but firmly entrenched in the back issue bins. While Barry’s death in CRISIS was one of the most famous events in comic book history his trial gradually faded into obscurity, uncollected for decades.

The storytelling constantly tends towards the melodramatic, and feels incredibly dated, but the story itself is still remarkably compelling, and is no doubt the reason why it was finally reprinted, even if it’s in black and white; at nearly six hundred pages it’s unlikely and in fact nearly impossible for so much material to have been collected any other way, at least in one volume. Given the nature of the way it was written, this is the best way to read the trial experience and receive maximum impact.

Bates was able to write something like this because he knew that sales were down and that the character was scheduled to die (a fate referenced in the final issue a number of ways, including the concluding line, “And they lived happily ever after…for a while…” which is itself more than enough to mark the story as memorable) and be replaced by Wally West, who carried the mantle for more than two decades, in the process and with the help of Waid and Johns virtually eclipse his predecessor’s legacy. Predating in-continuity game-changers like IDENTITY CRISIS and CIVIL WAR, Barry’s trial marked a transition that left superheroes exposed to the problems of the real world for the first time. Given that his first appearance brought in the Silver Age (not to mention his meeting with the original Flash indirectly leading both to the event that killed him and the one that brought him back), the fact that Barry Allen helped make history again long deserved to be preserved in popular memory.

SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE TRIAL OF THE FLASH is arguably the most important reprint of the past few years, and it is also entertaining, enlightening (Barry murders Thawne as the villain is about to murder Barry’s second bride-to-be, and who even knew he had any other relationships besides Iris?), and full of classic encounters, featuring the infamous Rogues Gallery and an assortment of other foes, as well as a key moment in the ongoing war between the Flash and the Reverse Flash. While Sinestro may be an on-and-off member of Hal Jordan’s own Green Lantern Corps and General Zod may be another Kryptonian, neither has made it their life’s purpose the way Eobard Thawne has to make his foe’s life a living hell. If such a conflict led to such a moment as featured in this story, then it surely deserves to be memorialized.


Read The Trial as a Flashpoint!


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Quarter Bin #22 "Smattering of DC from 1986-2002"

From October 1999.

DC’s SECRET FILES & ORIGINS specials were some of the best things the company did in the 1990s, and something I still wish they’d bring back. This one, obviously, spotlights Dick Grayson from a few months after I was forced to abandon comics for the first time (I should probably reiterate, because 2011 hasn’t exactly seemed to prove it so far here at Comics Reader, but for economic reasons I’ve “retired” from collecting new comics for the second time), just three years after his first series launched. As readers will remember, Dick assigned himself to the We-only-wish-we-were-as-good-as-Gotham neighbor Bludhaven, which was filled with police corruption so thick Chuck Dixon’s Dudley Soames beat Geoff Johns’ Hunter Zolomon by a few years as a police inspector who later turned into a villain (Soames becoming the subsequently underutilized Torque, while Zolomon became the new Reverse Flash). It was during this time that Dick sort of became DC’s Daredevil, with Blockbuster becoming Bludhaven’s Kingpin (with an epic payoff Devin Grayson got to script; it still kills me that her tenure still gets very little respect). The contents were typically stellar: beyond profiles of characters relevant to the series (including a new villain named Shrike who apparently had close ties to Dick) and a chronology from the rise of Robin to the most recent developments in the NIGHTWING series; to a couple of short stories, one of which is written by Dixon with art from Scott McDaniel (the blockbuster team from the earliest run on the book) and actually involves a nod to Jason Todd and two by Devin Grayson, one harking back to the Wolfman/Perez Titans and the other to Dick’s torturous history with women. In short, this is a perfect book for any fan of Dick Grayson, from 1999 and even in 2011, something that will remind readers just how much potential the character has, as well as his rich history.

From July 2002.

The final issue of the modern Superboy’s first series is perhaps a good indication that at least at that point he really was ready to take a break. The fun starts off with Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett reuniting one more time (they were the creative team who helped launch the character in 1993, as well as the series, and a return engagement hugely inspired by Jack Kirby at the midpoint of the series), marred only by Grummett’s decreased ability (or willingness) to replicate the style he’d made famous throughout the previous decade (he’s one artist who should either be absolutely consistent or completely change his style, because his work in this issue is almost painful to see). From there, the creative team that’d been working on the book in its final issues takes over, and consists of Jimmy Palmiotti and Dan DiDio as writers (and it’s worth noting that DiDio did begin his DC tenure as a writer, which makes his current efforts, which began a few years ago with THE OUTSIDERS not as much of a stretch as some fans might believe) and John McCrea somehow doing even worse art than Grummett-in-this-issue. Clearly the new team had attempted to push Superboy in a completely new direction, almost completely revamping him (which is something I hate for creative teams to do, ignoring someone else’s continuity and replacing it with something that isn’t as interesting but is superficially similar and in short not inspired in the least). The elements they worked with might have actually worked with only a few keys differences (first of which would have been a different artist), but as it is, this left Superboy free to be reimagined by Geoff Johns (who had retroactively-famously proposed his vision in SUPERBOY’s letters column years earlier), and in turn receive a complete reboot this year as part of the New 52, which was probably for the best.

From August 1992.

As I wrote about in QB #19, Dan Jurgens and his brief run with the Justice League is probably more memorable to me than for most fans, and a large part of that is the debut of a subsequently obscure character, Bloodwynd. I have a feeling that Dan’s whole run with the League was meant to hinge around the “Doomsday” story (which as of this issue was only about five months ahead), and so it was probably shorter than he’d intended, or at least readers like me would’ve hoped. Maxima, who’s apparently returning in the New 52 with a more alien look, is in the spotlight this issue.

From February 1988.

From the early days of the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire run, it shows because the classic line-up isn’t even in place yet, but the spirit of the enterprise already well on display. There are four Green Lanterns featured in this issue, one of them being Hal Jordan, and all the others members who don’t really matter in the modern era (Arisia, who comes closest; G’Nort, who is actually referred to as Gnort in this early appearance; and Katma Tui, who was Soranik Natu’s predecessor as Sinestro’s successor). Features the Manhunters and is a “Millennium” crossover from Week 5 (so says the cover!).

From May 1986.

From the post-CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS version of the New 52 reboot comes this dual origin for the original Blue Beetle, Dan Garrett, and his subsequent replacement, Ted Kord, from Len Wein and Gil Kane. It’d be interesting what a modern creator could do with either one, because what’s presented here hasn’t exactly dated very well. Still, extremely interesting to have, including the Beetle publishing history included in the letters column.

From August 2001.

The final issue of James Robinson’s epic (before the Blackest Night resurrection issue) is something I felt like reading long before the Omnibus business I talked about a few months back (and in fact thanks very much to the Blackest Night issue, to link these parenthetical phrases). As expected from the style of the series, the issue deals with Jack Knight’s farewell to Opal and his supporting cast, and in Robinson’s own farewell note, THE SHADE series that has only now just been undertaken is referenced, in case you were keeping score.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Opening the Black Casebook

Okay, so it’s no big secret that I greatly admire Grant Morrison as a creator. Perhaps the thing I admire most about him is his ability to synthesize stories from disparate or unusual elements, or otherwise his ability to approach storytelling from a unique perspective. Often, and certainly earlier in his career, Morrison tended toward the cultural fringe, and may or may not have exaggerated his personal connections to that element in order to promote his work. Starting in 1996 with the first issues of JLA, he began to tend toward the mainstream, as symbolized by his willingness to write mainstream superhero stories, though certainly from a continuing Morrisonian bent.

His ongoing Batman saga dates back to a request he received in 1995 to work on the Dark Knight, but Morrison didn’t actually begin until a decade later. He didn’t want to do the kind of material that other creators were doing, but rather approach the franchise from a fresh perspective, one that took in the entirety of Batman’s legacy, the disparate eras and characterizations that sometimes seemed to contradict not only each other but the general understanding of what Bruce Wayne had become following the deaths of his parents and his vow of vengeance on the criminal element. What intrigued Morrison most was embracing the most improbable elements, and this he took to mean material that was created during the 1950s and ’60s. He envisioned a rationale that would make this scenario work, the general grind of crime-fighting in the midst of villains with outrageous toxins at their disposal, and thus began his epic saga of Doctor Hurt, the Black Glove, and the Black Casebook.

This is one of the advantages of the DC approach as compared to Marvel’s, which has attempted to reconcile the same continuity decade after decade, while DC has periodically reinvented itself (such as the recent “New 52,” but stretching all the way back to the Silver Age, when the Justice Society was separated from the ongoing careers of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, whose origins kept shifting forward while their contemporaries eventually became their predecessors, and even a completely separate reality). (Some writers such as Allan Heinberg, who is admittedly an outsider as it is, break the Marvel rules with such concepts as the Young Avengers.) Where some will see obvious distinctions and styles, others like Morrison will see opportunities to exploit and interpret in new and interesting ways. (A character like the Joker, for instance, has been portrayed so many ways, he is sometimes described as literally reinventing himself, behavior that certainly suits him.)

BATMAN: THE BLACK CASEBOOK is a collection of stories Morrison helped formulate, most of which consist of ideas and characters he brought back during “Batman R.I.P.” and earlier adventures, and a few merely representative oddities. It is meant to give an authoritative and definitive archive to the origins of Morrison’s tales. Of course, it is also a reprint volume of old material. In that regard, it’s doubtful many modern readers will care much for its contents. As a window into Morrison’s mind, it’s at least worth investigating.

There are three key ancestor creators included, the most important of them being Bill Finger, who succeeded Batman creator Bob Kane as the character’s driving force (he was the original writer, it might be noted, and so shares a certain amount of credit with the artist Kane). The others are France Herron and Edmond Hamilton. I’ll talk about their individual contributions shortly. As a whole, they are more important, at least once Morrison brought their ideas together, than modern readers can truly appreciate. Sometimes it’s a little difficult to remember that comic book creators from decades past didn’t just create memorable characters or support a fledgling medium, but had stories that are actually worth remembering, too. That’s the crux of what Morrison realized, that writing comics isn’t just about coming up with ideas but borrowing from someone else’s legacy (which is much what writing in any medium is about).

1951’s BATMAN #65 saw Bill Finger introduce the concept of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. Clearly, he already had Robin at this point, so even the Boy Wonder was startled by the events that unfold, his sidelining and apparent replacement by Wingman, whom Batman is actually training to serve as a surrogate in Europe. The fact that Wingman was lost to time until Morrison started looking outside of Gotham City, as few writers had before him, for inspiration about how to expand Batman’s legacy doesn’t lessen the impact of Finger’s idea. What was a random story in 1951 became a part of a deliberate continuity in someone else’s hands. Finger himself inadvertently adds to that legacy in 1956’s DETECTIVE COMICS #235, in which Bruce Wayne reopens the murder investigation of his parents when he learns that his father once dawned a Batman costume (an anecdote I first read in Len Wein, Jim Aparo, and John Byrne’s forgotten UNTOLD LEGEND OF BATMAN, originally published in 1982). Next come 1957’s DETECTIVE COMICS #247 and BATMAN #112, in which Batman battles the psychological attacks of Professor Milo, clearly anticipating Morrison’s Dr. Hurt, but not as much as BATMAN #156 FROM 1963, in which Batman actually suffers from delusions he must shake off (an echo of Morrison’s complete saga to date, from “R.I.P.” to FINAL CRISIS to THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE, in which he suffers a mental assault or two and a dramatic journey that finally snaps him out of it). Of course, Finger also introduces Bat-Mite in 1959’s DETECTIVE COMICS #267, as well as the random “Rainbow Creature” story from 1960’s BATMAN #134.

France Herron has two key inclusions, one being the predecessor to Morrison’s Man-of-Bats in 1954’s BATMAN #86 and, more importantly, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh in 1958’s BATMAN #113, basically uniting two of the three key elements that Morrison would later combine (other Batmen, psychological tests, and strange cases). Building on what Finger had done three years earlier, Herron introduces a Native American ally for Batman (later eras would find it easier to use existing characters from other properties, hence such associations as the Justice League and the Outsiders) and then a completely alien one, both of whom were inspired by the Dark Knight’s exploits. Batman himself finds his experiences on the alien world of Zur-En-Arrh almost unbelievable, and requires a token to ground his memories. Ironically, Morrison would later use Zur-En-Arrh as a kind of grounding element for Batman’s mind, not to mention borrowing the counterpart’s whole costume (which, if you knew none of this, you would have assumed was Batman simply creating a makeshift costume from rags, as indeed it looks in the updated appearance during “R.I.P.”), and “Zur-En-Arrh” as simply a nonsense phrase he concocted from some religious experience in his past.

Finally, there’s Edmond Hamilton. He does more than Finger or Herron could have by adopting wholesale the concept of other Batmen, beginning in 1955’s DETECTIVE COMICS 215, introducing Knight & Squire (whom Morrison would later update during his JLA tenure, adding them to the Ultramarine Corps) as well as Musketeer, Legionary, Gaucho, and Ranger, all of whom represent a given country. He brings most of them back in 1957’s WORLD’S FINEST #89 (which ironically features Superman adopting a second heroic identity while he’s processing his own identity crisis), which formally introduces the Club of Heroes, as well as John Mayhew. Whether inspired by Finger and Herron or not, Hamilton is clearly the biggest source of eventual inspiration for Morrison. Had he consulted with his contemporaries, Hamilton might have started the game earlier, if stories were written like that back then. (The reason I’m so keen to support BATWING from the “New 52” is that it takes the full weight of Batman, Inc. off of Morrison’s shoulders for the first time.)

The last issue in the collection is 1964’s uncredited BATMAN #162, another random tale that at least makes a reference to Batman’s permanent files, whether or not it’s directly related to Morrison’s overarching concept of the black casebook itself (could just be an irony), and happens to feature Batwoman, another part of the continuing Batman legacy.

A lot of “R.I.P.” was an echo of “Knightfall,” the famous trial Bane (soon to be seen in Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT RISES) put Batman through only a few years before Grant Morrison first began crafting his epic, so in the sense that the Dark Knight was put through a psychological trial was not in itself completely new, far from it, considering Batman’s co-creator was telling such stories half a century earlier. What sets Morrison apart is his willingness to take even the silly elements seriously, with a character many modern readers will only take seriously if the character himself is taken seriously (the continuing legacy of Adam West’s campy TV version), recognizing that Batman represents a considerable suspension of disbelief already. Assumed to be a great detective, a great athlete, a great hero, and a great inspiration, he has endured countless interpretations since his creation in 1939. Finger, Herron, and Hamilton all recognized that his legacy even in his fictional world would be great, and that the challenge to defeat him would be ever-present. Morrison simply brought all these elements together in a credible way.

THE BLACK CASEBOOK isn’t just a souvenir from “R.I.P.” but a testament to that enduring legacy. You don’t need to know that Grant Morrison borrowed many of the elements featured in its tales to enjoy them; rather, you can enjoy the fact that many writers have been greatly inspired by Batman over the years, and some of them have had certain common inspirations. Morrison is just the latest. A lot of readers tend to be intimidated by his work, so if anything, BLACK CASEBOOK is his own way of deflating some of that aura, by acknowledging that his Batman stories came from his predecessors, that all he did was bring all of it together.