Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Bone to Pick!

Having previously explored the new Jeff Smith material found in BONE: TALL TALES, now’s the time to have a look at QUEST FOR THE SPARK, the recently released novel from Tom Sniegoski and Scholastic.

This is a pretty huge development for the BONE franchise, the first tangible results from the Scholastic initiative to broaden its fanbase. While many have anticipated some kind of animated movie over the years, it probably never even occurred to anyone that prose fiction would eventually turn up. For one thing, BONE is a uniquely visual experience, drawing on the combined comic book and cartoon strip heritage and combining it with epic fantasy to create something that has transcended both. While Smith has over the years allowed other to play in his sandbox, there has been little doubt that BONE and Jeff Smith are synonymous. There are already a number of contradictions that seem to surround QUEST FOR THE SPARK.

There’s little doubt that Scholastic, the childrens publisher who has just finished publishing in color the complete BONE catalog, plus a few additional volumes, including TALL TALES, is the primary motivator in this development, bringing the franchise more in line with the more traditional concepts of literature. QUEST FOR THE SPARK happens to represent the first material Scholastic can claim as its own as well. With the success of Harry Potter (for which the publisher serves as the US distributor), there was a flood of similarly ambitious properties to serve the young readers market that a wizard awakened, and BONE now officially joins this trend. Sniegoski crafts his tale more out of this tradition than from what Smith established in the graphic novels. This in itself is not a bad thing, and is in fact very much a good thing, further broadening the appeal and possibilities of BONE, though it does serve new readers more than it does older ones (in any number of senses).

I came to TALL TALES and its promise of this book late, but still early enough to join in the anticipation, since this was still very much an event for me. Smith provides sporadic illustrations for QUEST, to which his new drawings in the revised STUPID, STUPID RAT TAILS now seems like a prologue, though when I say “sporadic,” I really do mean it, and sometimes, it seems as if they were done without a lot of consulting with Sniegoski’s manuscript. But more than TALL TALES, Smith has a chance to create new characters, even just in visualization, representation. There are Bones here, an older explorer and his two young companions, a nephew and niece, but they’re more like the hobbits of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, supporting a human lead, a boy thrust into unexpected adventure. There’s also a disgraced Veni Yan warrior, and a pair of Rat Creatures, used to typical comic effect.

How all of it reads leads to some interesting comparisons, and I’m glad I’ve already referenced Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, and Harry Potter, because they have further relevance. I don’t claim to be a Tolkien scholar (because that’s the best term at this point), but I’m familiar enough with his Rings trilogy that I could make a few observations on Jackson’s versions, which have a greater divergence than most fans of either version often admit. Jackson clearly has a visual feast to present, and he cast the parts perfectly, though he alters enough material that it ultimately throws the whole balance of the protect off, from a strong and confident beginning to further developments that seem to miss the point, until he finally realizes he has to end strongly on Frodo’s triumph (though the glory really falls on Sam). He spends so much time with Aragorn, the strapping human destined to be king, and muddled in the novelty of Gollum, that he loses the magic he began with (it’s perhaps no surprise that Gandalf is the clear distinguishing mark of these transitions, beginning with Frodo and ending with Aragorn).

In contrast, the Harry Potter adaptations seemed to grow into their strengths, recognizing the important elements, and better utilizing all the things that were put in place at the beginning. That seems to be the way Sniegoski warmed into his role as caretaker of the BONE franchise. QUEST begins awkwardly, even clumsily, slipping from one cliché to another, so that the author seems to have assembled something reader will already be familiar with, and it isn’t necessarily BONE, but as the story builds, so does Sniegoski’s confidence. I realize there’s a world of difference from the way the Potter films, Jackson, and Sniegoski have worked. A succession of directors have worked closely with J.K. Rowling and in the warmth of blockbuster sales to get Harry right, while Jackson worked decades after Tolkien’s death, and only in the midst of a cult following, and shot his three films virtually simultaneously. Sniegoski himself has enjoyed working on his own projects, and a miniaturized version of the fallow period the Lord of the Rings books enjoyed, building and maintaining fan interest, but not a lot of pressure, and he ahs worked with Jeff Smith himself. There’s a mingling of experiences, from just the examples given, that has allowed QUEST FOR THE SPARK to be more of a success than it really had to be. BONE is not primarily a prose experience, but it can apparently work that way, too, with a few modifications.

There’s always going to be something changed in the translation from one medium to another, and that doesn’t necessarily mean one will be better than another, whether you’re talking the original material or the new incarnation. In most instances, bringing new voices to talk the same language but in different words only helps to strengthen the material, proves its enduring appeal. Scholastic has helped make that happen with BONE, and Sniegoski proves that he’s capable of being that new voice with QUEST FOR THE SPARK, which is itself only the beginning of a whole new epic tale. If Scholastic had commissioned someone to adapt the original stories themselves, who knows what I’d be writing right now? If that movie had ever happened (or will happen in the future), many things fans now cherish will not make it into that new version of what they already know. But what remains when you strip those things away? One would hope, something you may still enjoy.

We’re at the point where we’re beginning to find out.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quarter Bin #6 "Sparx"

Let’s start this new phase of the Quarter Bin off a little differently, by listing the comics that led to the topic we’ll be looking at this week:

From December 1993.

SHOWCASE ’94 #6 & 12 (DC)
From June and December 1994.

From March to June 1995.

From August 1999.

From February 2007.

Okay, so the subject, in case you were wondering, is Donna Carol Force, otherwise known as Sparx. Debuting in ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN ANNUAL #5 (which was part of Quarter Bin #2), Sparx was a part of the BLOODLINES initiative, a 1995 effort that ran throughout that year’s annuals intended to create a whole new generation of heroes (Hitman ended up being the most enduring, but because he belonged to Garth Ennis, he lived and died almost exclusively in his own series) based on an alien invasion that activated the meta genes of random victims. As you can tell, given that you yourself no doubt have a very tenuous awareness of any of this, it was a general failure, as has been pretty much every other effort from the past twenty years to create genuinely new superheroes within both DC and Marvel with enduring, mass appeal. Sparx, though, was a favorite of mine, thanks to her continuing adventures alongside Superboy, notably in SUPERBOY AND THE RAVERS, a hugely unappreciated comic I hope to fully explore later on in this blog, an issue-by-issue affair that will be legendary.

But for now, I thought it would be fun to revisit Sparx a little more singularly. In the beginning, she was just another of the BLOODLINES creations, and the first comics listed at the top of this column are the concluding mini-series for that event (for most of the Nineties, it was customary for DC to link their annuals through some kind of event or gimmick, back when annuals were something the company made an effort to produce for most of its line, if indeed at all, and not just to conclude or explain some major event from the regular series). That was 1993 Sparx.

In 1994, the company began making an effort to grant these new heroes more exposure. Gunfire, who would eventually sink into a deep obscurity, was probably the first one to receive an ongoing series commitment. Sparx and others began exploring the potential of being featured in SHOWCASE, a traditional DC title that had at that point become a series of twelve-issue annual anthology projects. While SHOWCASE #12 is a glorified cameo appearance hyping BLOOD PACK, #6 is a return to her true potential, revisiting the Force family intrigue originally apparent in AOSA #5. But it was BLOOD PACK awaiting her immediate future. A mini-series that revisited many of the BLOODLINES creations (notable exceptions included Gunfire, Hitman, Argus, and Loose-cannon, the latter two being my other favorites, whom you’ll no doubt hear more about in the future, but probably Argus first), it was also an attempt to cash in on the then-fledgling reality show craze (THE REAL WORLD was just getting started). Reading a lot like recent efforts such as FINAL CRISIS AFTERMATH: DANCE (featuring Super Young Team) or INFINITY, INC., it wouldn’t be entirely out of place with a new collection (though the audience would probably still be…just me). That was 1995 Sparx.

And aside from SUPERBOY AND THE RAVERS, that was pretty much Sparx, period. SUPERBOY #65 is another random appearance that doesn’t really amount to much. SUPERMAN/BATMAN #32 is kind of a funny story, since it’s the wrong issue, but based on another random appearance. It’s a shame, too, because Sparx is a wonderful character whose potential is so much greater than her association with Superboy. As Donna Carol (D.C.) Force, there are so many more possibilities than are typically associated with not just the creations of BLOODLINES, but most superheroes. The Force family is known for its meta genes. The only reason why Donna didn’t already have powers was because hers hadn’t activated yet. Otherwise, she’s already part of a rich tradition, even if very few creators really seemed all that interested in exploring it. Ignoring Sparx is like saying there’s nothing interesting about mutants. While that was an argument readers apparently wanted to make in the Sixties, you’d look like a fool trying to assert such a sentiment today. And that’s basically what’s happened with Sparx. I would not hesitate to term her absence in comics today to be foolish.

That’s a little of what it’s like to combine past experience with the potential of back issues and quarter bins, the ability to rescue treasure from the scrap heap. While her backlog is small (excluding …RAVERS, which again I will come back to at some point), Sparx has a potentially huge future ahead of her. She may seem like just another failed effort now, almost as completely forgotten as Gunfire, but with the right kind of effort, she can become, well, a whole new force in comics. Having a whole family of superheroes is nothing to sneeze at. Ever heard of the Fantastic Four? Or the Incredibles? Well, this is a whole bloodline that’s been living with the meta gene for years, and they don’t have the benefit of the public eye to contend with, or benefit from. I guess, then, that it’s only natural, that Sparx has faded into the background, since that’s where her family has always been. But Donna Force has already demonstrated once the ability to transcend that.

And she can do it again.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures...!

If you can believe it, Jeff Smith started publishing BONE back in 1991. For some modern readers, that history only stretches back to 2005, when Scholastic started reprinting, in color, the original collections for a more general audience, where emerging readers who otherwise would never have known about Phone Bone and his cousins and their adventures in the Valley, since Smith really only had access to regular visitors to comic book shops originally. BONE did develop a considerable following that way, but so much has happened since then.

Scholastic continued printing the original volumes, and finally reached CROWN OF HORNS in 2009 (a virtual eternity for something that already existed, when fans of Harry Potter would become antsy for J.K. Rowling to bridge a gap of only a few years while writing epics that in total length eclipse even the famed ONE VOLUME EDITION of Smith’s opus), and eventually went after the rest of the material, the ROSE companion book illustrated by Charles Vess, and then last year TALL TALES.

Here’s where I should attempt another introduction, because I may be in danger of “burying the lead.” What truly makes TALL TALES special is that it features some actual new material. This would have been huge news I couldn’t possibly have avoided a few years ago. To be precise, maybe 2004, the year Smith concluded the original BONE series, or 2005, when it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that the ride really had ended. BONE was one of the darlings of comics fans for years (you might say, specifically, 1991-2004), a book Smith put out under his Cartoon Books imprint, until its popularity peaked and Image wanted a slice of it (though the series subsequently reverted back to Cartoon), and this was long before TIME called it one of the all-time greatest graphic novels. I must confess to not having been a reader, even when I began to frequent comic book stores, until a friend of mine kept insisting I try it, and even then, I didn’t keep reading it for long (idiot!!!). This was during the period before the full breadth of Smith’s vision truly became apparent, when I might be forgiven in mistaking its appeal to lie mostly in the silly antics of the Bone cousins, who all my experience reminded me of comic strip characters inhabiting a more continuing world than usual. (It reminded me best of CALVIN + HOBBES, and to Bill Watterson, it would have looked almost exactly like POGO.)

Still, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, it can sometimes be difficult for me to be a regular comics reader. Even when I tentatively dipped my toes back into the comics waters in 2004, when I was aware that BONE was coming to an end, I decided to skip it. It wasn’t until the ONE VOLUME EDITION was first published that I began to consider that I might get back into this BONE thing. I was thrilled to see OUT FROM BONEVILLE at a Wal-mart one day, when Scholastic began its efforts. I had remembered vividly when Smith used to talk about plans to make BONE into an animated feature, and this new exposure made me think of that first. It was finally going to happen! But Scholastic didn’t continue very speedily (as if making absolutely sure they weren’t making some gigantic mistake, counting and analyzing all the numbers from the initial sales), and the more Pixar and its ilk broke into the movies and transformed expectations , a BONE animated feature seemed less likely. It seemed to fit the pattern less and less. It would be like asking Mickey Mouse, a respected and admired and versatile star, but still almost completely irrelevant to today’s audiences, to star in a new movie.

I don’t care to admit how long it actually took for me to finally buy and read the complete story, via the ONE VOLUME EDITION, but the more I read it, the more I sat in awe of Smith’s vision. When I started working in bookstores, I was able to track Scholastic’s progress more closely (though I refrained from buying the same material that I already had, even though that initial collection looked lonely), and it quickly faded into a favorite aspect of my everyday experience, with a little thrill every time someone asked to find them.

What ended up happening, of course, was that I ended up buying the companion volumes, ROSE and the somewhat superfluous HANDBOOK, which seemed to be intended for exactly those young readers Scholastic had originally envisioned. At some point, I had bought a copy of STUPID, STUPID RAT TAILS, a Cartoon collection that featured Smith collaborating with or completely ceding control to other creators: Tom Sniegoski and Stan Sakai (who has his own legend to maintain with USAGI YOJIMBO), and when I first heard of TALL TALES, I couldn’t figure out how much of the material was reprinted from RAT TAILS, and how much of it, as promised, was supposed to be new. TALL TALES was originally released in 2010, but I didn’t get it until this year, thanks to an ambiguity that still baffles me. If I’d known exactly what it was, I probably wouldn’t have waited so long.

The first entry in this Comics Reader blog was the annual QB50, a list of my favorite comics from the preceding year. It’s likely I would have found a place for something as exceptional as new BONE if I’d known. The list didn’t entirely suffer from lack of Jeff Smith, though, since I’ve been following his newest project, RASL, which I term as Smith’s adult imagination, versus ideas that had obviously interested him since childhood, in BONE, when creatures who look like bones are actually called Bones, and who otherwise don’t really fit into the rest of even their own world.

When I finally had to guts to push past the confusion and simply buy TALL TALES, I discovered that it did indeed contain substantially new material, with only half reprinted from RAT TAILS, featuring Big Johnson Bone’s adventures in the Valley long before the Bone cousins ever landed there. Sniegoski is Smith’s main collaboration in that half as well as the rest of it, which includes most of the new material. Smiley Bone takes a group of Bone scouts camping, and spins several, well, tall tales for them, and these episodes are written by Sniegoski. The whole book features art by Smith, whether reprinted from RAT TAILS or completely new. Clearly he hasn’t missed a beat since 2004, and no doubt thanks to the fact that he has never been able to leave BONE entirely behind. While none of it is essential material for those who grew enchanted with the original series, it does serve to remind the reader that this is still wildly appealing stuff, that doesn’t really have a clear parallel with other things they may be reading. It’s almost as if, stripped of the fantasy elements, you can still think of BONE as that perfect blend of your childhood memories, when you would never have questioned the rather featureless appearance of the main stars. (Rereading the Big Johnson Bone adventures, it’s almost fair to say that, like Goofy, the Bones are probably most analogous to dogs, even though they have no clear species of their own.)

I would be a tad remiss if I didn’t mention another draw of TALL TALES is the promise is still more new material, which takes on a completely different form. The book concludes with a prose excerpt from QUEST FOR THE SPARK, which itself has now been released. Written by Sniegoski with sporadic illustrations from Smith, it will be the subject of an entirely separate essay in two weeks, so I won’t talk too much about it here. Suffice it to say, but Scholastic eventually decided this BONE thing really did have legs.

BONE has become an integral part of my comics experience, and this serves as the tiniest of introductions to it. Please, by all means, if you haven’t read any of it yourself, like my friend all those years ago, I heartily encourage you to give it a try. You’ll be entering a whole new world.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Quarter Bin #5 "From an Actual Quarter Bin, Part 2"

This is the other great batch of actual quarter bin comics, the second haul from last summer, when I really buckled down with the targeted picks. Once again, the selections are from Escape Velocity in downtown Colorado Springs. Because there are so many, I will skip further introductions and dive right in:

THE 99 SPECIAL (Teshkeel Comics)
From 2007; I had originally selected this one in anticipation of the then-upcoming DC book that saw this team return in a mash-up with the JLA, so obviously the topicality has come and gone. In many ways, I still wish Fabian Nicieza were the dominant creative voice here, since there’s so much potential that just sort of gets left on the floor, a problem that continues to this day. This particular comic, though, was a good find, because it’s an origin issue, so I was at least able to dive rather directly into the 99’s story.

From 1999 (originally presented with WIZARD #91); I suppose in hindsight Alan Moore’s ABC comics were even more important than they seemed at the time, since they represent the last time he was truly committed to the mainstream, before he became completely disillusioned with one too many movie adaptations he felt didn’t do his comics justice. Is it an irony that no one ever moved to make a film of this work?

From January 2002; Howard Chaykin is an icon who has completely transcended every traditional comic book expectation, and I’m still waiting for him to truly receive his due. This book, however, possibly because he doesn’t supply the art, doesn’t help do him justice.

ANIMAL MAN #22-24 (DC)
From April, May, and June 1990; these were among my happiest finds, some of Grant Morrison’s later issues in his acclaimed run. I was all of nine years old when these were originally released, so even if I had been reading comics at the time, there’s no way I would have been reading them, or at least appreciating them. The book that made Grant’s reputation is of such mind-boggling scope that it’s little wonder that he struggled for years to find a proper follow-up (he’d presented his masterpiece, ARKHAM ASYLUM, a year earlier, but I hope to write more about that at a later date), spending time with the surrealistic odyssey THE INVISIBLES before going mainstream with JLA in anticipation of his Batman work a decade later. I didn’t have any experience with ANIMAL MAN until reading the DEUS EX MACHINA trade only a few years ago, and these issues represent part of the arc collected in that climactic story that shattered storytelling boundaries. Having apparently peaked so early (what other writer has ever approached such transcendent material?), Grant then had to tackle the matter of how to make the traditional material better than it’s ever been. Well, that’s my argument, anyway…

ASH #1 (Event)
From November 1994; now that he’s stepped down as the head honcho at Marvel, maybe Joe Quesada will go back to making comics on a regular basis. Do you even remember this one? After the blockbuster creation of Azrael at DC, Joe set out to create his own company, outside of the Image revolution, but relying on the same art-driven mandate that drove much of that decade crazy. You can see for yourself with this issue how completely overblown Joe’s concept was. Event’s only real success was Painkiller Jane, which actually became a short-lived TV show. Joe’s own art took radical steps away from the style presented here. Would anyone be interested in revisiting Ash today?

ASTRO CITY ½ (Image)
ASTRO CITY #18 (WildStorm)
From January 1998, August 1999, April 2003, and December 2005, respectively; Kurt Busiek shot to instant acclaim with MARVELS, a project that revisited the storied origins of, well, Marvel’s most famous superheroes, and their earliest and most iconic adventures. He eventually parlayed that success into an ongoing project that explored his own creations, though the tone didn’t really change (the controversial and extended DARK AGE is famously based on what would have been his actual sequel to MARVELS). Like Alan Moore, Busiek doesn’t write comics so much as stories that reveal his love for the medium (and while Moore eventually branched out into history and other established literary figures, Busiek maintains his first love). Arguably, while this is the big strength for both creators, it has often hindered their potential (I would argue that it eventually caused Moore’s bitter split with the mainstream; in that vein, his frustrations with Hollywood adaptations of his work is actually a manifestation of his bafflement that other people really don’t understand what he’s doing; in essence, Frank Miller making a movie out of Will Eisner’s Spirit is closer to his goal than anything else). Still, the ASTRO CITY comics I found in those bins were happy, happy finds, since I’ve only recently begun reading Busiek’s passion project, and my appreciation has grown.

From October 1999; this one is such a throwback, here in 2011, for so many reasons. For starters, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan were both dead and buried in 1999, and now they’re both back and headlining DC. The title “The Brave and the Bold” was another thing that was extinct in 1999, but was brought back for an extended run last decade. Then there’s Mark Waid. In many ways, Waid fit’s the Moore/Busiek mold I was discussing above perfectly, achieving much of his early success drawing extensively from the past. With his famous “Return of Barry Allen” arc, that not only made his run in THE FLASH but also finally solidified Wally West’s right to succession, he made Barry relevant for a whole generation of reading, and paved the way for his return. But while Moore and Busiek constantly look backward, Waid kept looking forward, and anticipated the rise of Geoff Johns, a man often accused of building all his stories on the bones of the past. But what other creator has done more to forge the future of an entire company?

From January 2006; the fact that Bob Harras was synonymous with Marvel prior to his work on this short-lived book (this is actually the final issue) is perhaps the least interesting thing to talk about here. What greater concerns me is DC’s continual efforts to introduce new superheroes, which DC’s readers are constantly rejecting. I love reading on the Interweb how there’s been a lack of new characters in recent decades with staying power. Well, Interweb, it’s exactly your fault. The very demographic, or description of demographic, that’s supposed to support such initiatives fit’s the description of the Interweb: a small but vocal representation of an audience. The problem, almost the whole Interweb seems exclusively interested in bitching about things rather than expressing an actual interest in things. I would suggest many things would have been different for many characters created at DC and elsewhere over the last fifteen years if the Interweb had set a better example. One of the reasons Marvel and DC are bringing back letters columns is that they finally realized that the quality of conversation available on a letters page is infinitely greater than anything that has manifested on the Interweb since they attempted the transition, to “keep up with the times.” This is not to say that letters columns breed success for new ideas, but that message boards, tweets, profile updates, and the like certainly do not. “Progress” doesn’t always mean what it seems to. And for the record, Breach was another in a long line of interesting concepts that fans, if they were utilizing technology the way most people assume they do, or could, should have had a longer shelf life. The good news is that if he can be located in a quarter bin, that increases his chances of staying clear of that limbo Grant Morrison wrote about.

From March 1997; if you’ve done your math, you’ve no doubt realized that this comic comes from the Heroes Reborn era, and so yes, this is a Rob Liefeld book, female Bucky (since imported back into the mainstream), eagle-instead-of-A, and exaggerated figures all around. At some future date, I hope to represent here just how much I contradict the popular view of Liefeld, but suffice it to say…

From April, June, and July 1991; if you revisit Quarter Bin #2 you might note for the record that CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #4 was also represented in the first Escape Velocity quarter bin haul, and that was my introduction to this first, seminal teaming between Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, what you might consider the start of a quest, which led to these purchases, and eventually, the whole trade collection, which I will write more about later. Such has my appreciation of this work grown that I now consider it to be one of the great undiscovered masterpieces of comics.

DEADMAN #1 (Vertigo)
From October 2006; in a different reality, this title eventually achieved the same reputation as Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN, another title that took the name of an established DC superhero and completely reimagined it. I first became acquainted with Bruce Jones during his run with THE HULK, when he did some of the most interesting work with that character since Lou Ferrigno. Somehow Jones was never quite viewed as a comics master, possibly because of his work on NIGHTWING in which he went all Lovecraftian on Jason Todd.

GENERATION X #27 (Marvel)
From May 1997; I thought this was a pretty clever find, since Bastion is the villain here, as he was last year in “Second Coming.” Hey, remember Generation X?

From January 1992; even though I hadn’t really read him until SHADOWPACT, Ragman was a favorite character of mine since I collected his trading card. The original and ultimately more interesting Spawn, Rory Reagan also has the distinction of being the most famous Jewish superhero in comics, a fact that only periodically seems to come up. This is one of those times.

SEAGUY #3 (Vertigo)
From September 2004; when I read the SLAVES OF MICKEY EYE mini-series, it was without having read its predecessor, so mostly I got a kick out of Grant Morrison more or less parodying his own work in FINAL CRISIS. I had no idea how long fans of Seaguy had actually waited for the adventure promised at the end of this very issue. It’s also funny to note that Cameron Stewart’s art style actually changed between books.

From April 1991; there’s no other reason for this one other than, once again, Joe Quesada, whose art is unrecognizable, either from ASH or his most recent work. So, props for evolving, Joe.

YOUNG AVENGERS #4, 6, 7 (Marvel)
From July, September, and October 2005; this book and Ed Brubaker’s then-nascent CAPTAIN AMERICA is the work that finally got this life-long DC man to finally read Marvel on a regular basis. Allan Heinberg approached his material just as if he were writing a continuous and personal odyssey for a set of characters that were, through the duration of his original run, exclusively his, and he took every opportunity to create the very best stories he could, utterly devoid of the typical Marvel inability to make any lasting impact on old superheroes. Granted, this was possible because Brian Michael Bendis had set the stage (which he then removed, only to set a wider stage for the same old status quo) with “Avengers Disassembled.” I knew much of the earliest developments with the Young Avengers through Marvel’s efforts to recap previous stories at the start of each issue (still the smartest thing the company has ever done), so to actually read some of them was nice. I’m still baffled that AVENGERS: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE has met only apathy.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


It seems to me that comic book fans themselves are as much invested in burying their chosen medium as anyone else. Without even realizing it, they treat it as it were just as ephemeral and a waste of time as the people who actively view it as juvenile nonsense.

Before you wonder what the heck I’m smoking, let me explain a little more: Comics fans are the first ones the jump on any hot new thing, and they’ll follow a favorite series or company religiously. They’re also the first (and presumably only ones) to vehemently attack and deride a project or creator. Now, I’ve encountered that same kind of reaction in television opinions and pro wrestling (so presumably I’m talking about a far wider phenomenon, but for argument’s sake I’ll stick only with comics today). What interests me is that those same fans will lionize the most popular and established stories (or, again, demonize them), create and perpetuate the myths that support their current opinions, and every new comic is another opportunity to reiterate what they’ve already said. The result is that new releases and trade and/or hardcover collections get a fair bit of publicity. What falls in between is any talk on something that no longer seems relevant, that is either too old (which can mean that it was released last month) or was never collected.

Most of what I’ve been and will continue to talk about on this blog is exactly that kind of material. I realize you can find people talking about this kind of stuff elsewhere, but mostly it’s either nostalgic or facetious, and is completely irrelevant to the continuing interests of a comics fan, a comics reader, appealing more to the archivist or researcher. Yes, you can find a lot of material on something that’s just come out, or some opinions on something that has been deemed a classic, but how often do you hear about the rest of it? Are comics really that disposable? That’s what you might assume.

I begin this column with such thoughts because I am only now going to write about the death of Johnny Storm, hence the title at the top of the page, from FANTASTIC FOUR #587. For most fans, it’s such old news, they had to release the issue a day early just to try and keep on top of the story, and so old a topic that writing about it now seems completely irrelevant. Most fans already decided the only real reaction was simply to say, “Well, he’s just going to come back anyway, so what’s the point?”

That’s as much my point as anything else, too, but here’s why: Does reading the issue now, does the idea of the story, of the death of Johnny Storm, truly hold up? Some of this would seem to be histrionics on my part, trying to make a point out of thin air, but while some readers are advancing to the next issue, the next development, I’m in the unique position of being that reader who isn’t, who has in fact disconnected himself from the comics stream, and who therefore has the luxury of asking the questions that seem beyond the point, but bring up another point entirely. How to make what even comics fans consider to be an instantly disposable event into something worth talking about, how to write about comics that don’t seem to matter, as if they’re still worth talking about.

For starters, let’s rewind a little. Jonathan Hickman is the writer responsible for all of this. He first came to my attention, as he did with many others, while he was working for Image, when he was doing some of the most innovative and thought-provoking work in comics, a revolutionary at a time when it seemed safer to try and reemphasize the things that had worked in the past. When Marvel hired him, it seemed like a natural for the House of Ideas. He was quickly placed into projects that would capture his perspective in a more traditional context, but as he himself seemed to realize, the Fantastic Four were an inevitability. Most writers seemed to write them only as cosmic adventurers, or as a family unit that ahd become a cornerstone of the company, but rarely with anything truly challenging in mind (heh).

What Hickman represented was a chance to bring the team back to its roots, as an agent of the science games that gave Marvel almost every one of its famous superheroes (something that many writers had been doing with Iron Man over the years, but notably Orson Scott Card and Matt Fraction in the recent past, and Dan Slott recently with Spider-man). Like Fraction, he seemed to embrace the concept on a wide scale, but he was driving, inevitably, toward something much greater, something other writers had attempted before him, driving the story of the comic directly behind the characters themselves, and in the most dramatic way possible, by killing one of them off. You can’t come up with any more immediately iconic name for a Fantastic Four story than “Three.” Everyone knew exactly what he was aiming for the minute he started it.

Those who read Hickman’s run regularly say he teased every one of the team’s members as a possible victim, from Mr. Fantastic (whom I’d pegged, owing to the generation-spanning adventure I’d earlier sampled) to Invisible Woman (Sue Storm, wife of Reed Richards and sister of Johnny) to The Thing (who’d long ago become the most iconic member, even though it didn’t really come off that way in the movies). As Hickman himself explained, however, the only really logical choice was the Human Torch, who in addition to having personal connections with every other member as none of the others did, was also the only one created from the image and likeness of an existing Marvel property. Quite simply, Johnny was a victim of opportunity all the way around.

Of course, this is not to say we won’t see him again, and it seems likely and yes, inevitable, because this is comics we’re talking about. I’m not saying that with the same bitterness many seem to regard the phenomenon. If you’ve got good stories to tell, you shouldn’t let anything stand in your way, because hey, it’s only fiction. Even Sherlock Holmes proved too popular to kill off, and writers throughout the centuries have found it remarkably easy to revisit characters like Hercules and King Arthur, who did, in fact, die at the end of their original adventures.

The question, then, isn’t really whether or not Johnny Storm or any other member should have died, but whether or not it was worth reading for readers who hadn’t, in the common sense, been reading regularly, whether the issue was worth it for them then, or even now. If we were to treat FANTASTIC FOUR #587 as we would a book or a movie anyone could track down with very little effort, how would it fare? This is the back issue treatment, in essence. We’re not even talking about collections, of which there will inevitably be for “Three,” whether or not it stays in print past its original release. (Comics fans have an even more difficult time than Disney fans in keeping things out of some metaphorical vault.)

If fans were to treat individual issues the way they treat favorite storylines, the way trade and/or hardcovers collections are treated (as long as they’re in print), not just as fodder/filler for a box in someone’s home or store, not just in valuing a first appearance or random variant cover, what would be the value of this particular story?

The way I read it, most of the issue is a complete wash, a random adventure that’s impenetrable to anyone who hadn’t read the rest of the storyline, and doesn’t seem to foreshadow in the least bit Johnny’s death. Hickman seems to have borrowed, at least in spirit, Spock’s death from STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, a happenstance that appears to be the only way for the heroes to escape certain doom, with the sacrifice of one of their own. The actual moments of Johnny’s decision, how the issue closes, is absolutely worth the hype, something that would stand up no matter who the character is, whatever the scenario or medium. Hickman handles that like a pro.

The problem is, I don’t end up feeling that Hickman himself really needed to have written it. I don’t see even a trace of the Hickman I knew from Image, in any of his Marvel work. I see a certain logical connection to the titles he’s worked on, but not the material. As a representative work for a particular creator, I wouldn’t much see the point of having this in my portfolio. The way Grant Morrison kept working toward at and with his grand vision of Batman’s fall and return justified every bit of the hype that continues to surround his efforts. Even Ed Brubaker continues to have some kind of logic surrounding his work with Captain America (though I would argue, he writes a far better James Barnes than Steve Rogers). What can you say about Jonathan Hickman and the Fantastic Four? Maybe the regular readers will know, but the only time anyone wrote about Hickman’s run was “Three.”

Maybe the problem is a conceptual one. Maybe the Fantastic Four really don’t work on both levels, both the cosmic and the personal, as many fans and creators, including Hickman, seem to think. Maybe it’s simply a problem on my end. I’ve never, except during Civil War, read FANTASTIC FOUR regularly. I’m not sure any creator after the team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (whose appeal was immediately evident to me when the infamous “lost” issue was finally printed a few years back) has truly understood the appeal and potential in these characters. Except for the wedding between the parent figures, they’ve been hurt more than any of superheroes by the static nature of even Marvel properties, which routinely attempt to demonstrate the worth of a continuing and all-encompassing history (well, when it’s convenient). Hickman did recognize that a change had to happen, and he went for the obvious one, and in the middle of a big cosmic adventure, so he appealed to all the right things.

But it seemed like a last-ditch effort, rather than a concerted one. Unlike Brubaker, who had the benefit of a relaunch to fit all his ideas into a coherent whole, or Morrison, who employed an entire tapestry, as far as I know, Hickman seems content to let everything fall on that one moment, one “Three” and the death of Johnny Storm, and let a relaunch and general ramifications take over.

But I suppose that’s a problem for other readers. It was definitely worth talking about, and that’s exactly my point, when it was published and even now, and should be as relevant now as it was then, not just for what it caused and symbolized, but what the comic itself was and now stands to be forever, a single issue in a flood of single issues, but a notable, noteworthy, newsworthy, item.

I was last inside a comic book store a month ago. It doesn’t seem like such a long time ago, but sobriety is one step at a time, so one month is a long time for me. That’s also the last time I received a shipment from Midtown, which technically the method by which I was reading the majority of my comics in recent years. To have cut those subscription ties and to have stayed away from a comic book store and for only a month to have passed…Sometimes it seems like an eternity has passed by, sometimes like it’s silly to be feeling in the least bit nostalgic. I’ve heard about an issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that made me want to head down to Escape Velocity, or place an order for it, one of those landmark events that seems like it should be in everyone’s collection. So far, I’ve contented myself with knowing that Slott is doing the kind of material I knew he could. I’ve got the few comics I can read and/or buy at work, at the bookstore, including the first appearance of Flash Thompson as the new Venom, plus the big reveal of Hot Pursuit as some kind of alternate Barry Allen.

…Anyway, the rest of this column represents the last batch of new comics from the era that has now slipped, however tenuously, into history, the shipment that included FANTASTIC FOUR #587. Here’s what else I read:

When I heard that Phil Hester had picked up the baton from J. Michael Straczynski on this book, I couldn’t help but think that business was about to pick up. But aside from a new zestiness that reminded me of all the character Greg Rucka brought to Wonder Woman’s world, the story still meanders on the same Straczynski path, which is the only disappointment possible, given that I still expect Hester to rock this book, once he’s free to explore his own ideas. Because there really is a new spark evident.

Eric Wallace, one of the slightly more anonymous regular presences at DC, provides this continuation of the Marvel family saga, which the company only seems halfhearted about, despite some excellent work that’s occurred in recent years, highlighted by THE TRIALS OF SHAZAM! But among the first new letters DC has printed in about a decade, someone does add their voice to this very frustration. Maybe they’re hinting at something?

J.T. Krul continues a run that apparently isn’t getting a lot of appreciation from the fans, even though, as far as I can tell, if it didn’t start out awesome, has only gotten better with time. This issue spends a lot of time exploring the Galahad character, one of the more intriguing additions to Green Arrow lore, and a terrific piece of the current mythos, in that forest of his.

Scott Snyder’s third issue wraps up his first arc, and makes a few more haunting suggestions about how he plans to approach Dick Grayson. If he digs much deeper, this will truly be a remarkable run, for both creator and character.

Okay, so maybe it’s just me, but rather than being so encyclopedically thorough with these things, couldn’t Marvel be a little more reader-friendly? I’m not suggesting turning them into fluff, but there has to be a way to make it a little more…fun? Archives don’t make for casual reading, and when you release it in this format…fun should sort of be the mandate. Just saying…

Due to a shipping snafu, my store got double the number of this issue, which would be amusing if we sold this title half as well as we do BATMAN. In fact, if we sold any copies at all. We sell out of BATMAN, by the way, all two copies, every time. Anyway, Paul Cornell continues his tour with Lex Luthor, this time allowing The Joker to drop in for some fun. I think I would have more thoroughly enjoyed these stories if Cornell hadn’t believed he needed the gimmick of a guest star every issue. Or maybe it was a mandate he had to accept. Still, we do get another Larfleeze comic out of it!

That’s it, then (and pretty literally at that, pretty much). I’ll be moving into some interesting new topics in the coming weeks, so there’s definitely plenty of reasons to keep tuning in. The red phone is always open to calls, too!