Thursday, April 28, 2011

To Trade or Not to Trade...?

Okay, so that’s a fairly silly question. Let’s put an end to that debate. Many fans have, through the years, wondered if it’s, shall we say, nobler to read their comics via single issues, the regular release scheduled typified by your average Wednesday shelf jockey, or trade and/or hardcover collections, when you can read entire story arcs at your convenience. You can do both. That’s my conclusion.

But sometimes, and not when you’re hypnotized into making that trip or that order, reading beat by beat, drove by drove of comics, you wonder if you’re not somehow missing out, when you read the collection over the issue, that it’s somehow less special, less privileged. I have that kind of thought at the moment over Grant Morrison and his BATMAN, INC. run. As you know, I have quit my regular reading habits, to alleviate monetary strains, so I no longer read comics with the regularity I once did (or twice, depending how good your memory is). But once an addict, always the impulse to relapse. Fortunately, in this case we’re only talking about comics, so I think I can once and again indulge in the occasional comics purchase, and that’s the topic this week, jumbled as it is with other thoughts, including, yes, whether or not it’s just as well to wait for the collection. For instance, I will likely read Stuart Immonen’s latest major offering, FEAR ITSELF, as a collection. I didn’t mention it last week because it didn’t really fit in with the tone of the rest of what I had to say (that and I had temporarily forgotten about it), but it’s still pretty awesome that Marvel thinks he’s important enough to give him some truly significant work.

I’m content with the knowledge that there will be collections of all that FLASHPOINT material that has me salivating (I’m more interested in the side projects than the event itself, which is somewhat unusual, but those projects actually seem to be something of the point this time), and probably the Green Lantern one-shots that will accompany the movie, which I will otherwise not have a reasonable chance to reading without breaking my new code. I will, if all goes to plan, however, make a trip to Escape Velocity for Free Comic Book day next week. That’s an allowable exception. As are random trips and purchases such as will be covered in this column.

One of the painful results of that code, of the decision that broke the habit three months ago, was to give up BATMAN, INC., which had only just begun. Morrison was demonstrating a fresh perspective, a more carefree one than he’d exhibited in almost anything else I’ve read from him, except maybe JOE THE BARBARIAN (but more on that a tad later). Grant Morrison collections, are one of the few guarantees to be considered instant in-stock material, however, at the bookstore where I work, so that has been one of my sources for solace, whenever I wish I were still in the thick of it. Strangely, though, I’ve made the transition fairly painlessly. For someone who spent 2005-2010 made weekly trips to a comic book store or receiving orders in the mail, you’d think there’d be more separation anxiety, but there really hasn’t been. That isn’t to say that I received, like some smug jerk, that I was finally “grown up,” “matured” and realized I didn’t need comics anymore, but that not reading comics every week did not exactly turn out to be the end of the world. For one thing, I’ve been writing at Comics Reader during this time, so I’ve had at least one excuse to continue thinking about them, and while that doesn’t seem like much (especially if you consider just how many comics I used to read), I have a reason and that seems like enough. I’ve also been creating a database of all the comics I own, and sometimes, keeping up with the memories is enough, too. (It’s not like I don’t have any comics to read.)

I also have the fact that I will be writing future columns for Comics Reader based around collections, including a series on Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN, which I will be reading for the first time, and so you will have hopefully fresh thoughts on one of the medium’s touchstones, and so will I, to look forward to. There are others, and of course, new collections from new comics.

Speaking of Grant Morrison, JOE THE BARBARIAN comes up again later in this column when I talk about the comics that interrupted the exile, but I can’t help but wonder again, as I have when reading other issues of this book, if this might not be one of the better arguments that some comics really are made almost directly for collection. I suspect it reads better as a whole, and almost wish I had actually waited for collection. But now that I own all the individual issues, do I really need that collection? That’s the kind of thorny issue that still remains in this debate.

But giving up comics entirely? Well, that’s just crazy talk. Some of the following comics come from Escape Velocity in downtown Colorado Springs, and a few others from the aforementioned bookstore, when it seemed as if it was never longer going to be receiving new comics, so I thought I was going to be commemorating, not just enjoying, a fond memory. Anyhoo:

BATMAN, INC. #3-4 (DC)
Morrison takes Bruce Wayne to Argentina in his continuing quest to find recruits for the Batman family, and finds more and more intrigue, as only Morrison can, with a broader spectrum of possibility than most creators consider in a whole career (I’m not here referring to Stan Lee, who never saw a gimmick he didn’t want to appropriate for himself). That’s what’s typified Grant’s whole run with the Dark Knight, either focusing on the iconic, or seeing what can be done, with that same stance, with the least likely tangential characters. Morrison is the only writer who truly seems to be enjoying himself, on a continual basis, discovering at every turn that comics aren’t a challenge, but an opportunity. These two issues, glad as I was to find them both, are not the complete story. Hence, all that brooding over collections earlier.

Very pleased that this one was available, since the book itself was one of my proudest placeholders in my Midtown pull list, which, I think, didn’t publish a single issue the whole year-and-half I had that account. No matter! This issue, the penultimate in a study of comics history from Fred Van Lente, explores the various thorny monetary matters that can arise from the medium, some of which I was familiar with, others I wasn’t, but all amusing detailed, as Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey have been doing since ACTION PHILOSOPHERS (but more on that later).

The much-delayed conclusion from Morrison and Sean Murphy is exactly what you might have expected, and with a few surprises, and is just as appropriately magical as the rest of the book has been. Like an animated movie with all the cookie cutter elements left on the floor, JOE may end up being a significant element of Grant Morrison’s legacy, unexpected, given that Grant is as well known for his subversive impulses as his icon-busting/embellishing. If you want a version of the Morrison archetype that won’t deeply unsettle you or change everything you thought you knew, JOE THE BARBARIAN is the book for you. It quietly explores epic storytelling with an authentic emotional core, almost like a streamlined BONE (to keep that comic alive at Comics Reader).

BATMAN #707 (DC)
Tony Daniel concludes his sequel to “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul” (as I like to view it), confounding students of Sensei and letting Dick Grayson win the day without a lot of help from Peacock and I-Ching (when I’m not sure that could have been said, at least by Peacock, earlier). I still stand by Daniel’s work as a successor to the work of Morrison, Loeb, and Miller. It makes me wonder what an epic story would look like, if he truly cut loose, once he feels completely at home as a creator.

The kind of issue Geoff Johns only does very occasionally with Hal Jordan over in GREEN LANTERN (and I hope is more frequent here), a more character-based interlude with Barry, clearly in anticipation of FLASHPOINT (hello Hot Pursuit/Barry Allen!).

Tony Bedard rounds out his Weaponer arc. Maybe it’s just me, but I really didn’t see it coming, when Sinestro actually convinces the Weaponer to join his corps. Nice bit of continuity, this whole arc, which has only affirmed my interest in Bedard, one of the least-heralded but probably best writers in comics today.

All this DC talk makes it seem like I’m sliding back into partisan mode. I intended to pick up some more Hickman FF (both the final issue of the previous series, and the first of the book literally called FF), but I decided to pass. I remember that I wrote about “Three” as if Hickman would be jumping ship right after, and even now, knowing what he did next with the franchise, I wonder if there’s much point. Oh, and hey, Steve Rogers is going to be Captain America again! I just expect more from Hickman, who did such unusual, subversive work with Image. But I am still interested in the new “Big Time” Spider-Man comics. I’ll be reading some of those collections, definitely.

But this whole column should still be considered an exception!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Quarter Bin #7 "Stuart Immonen"

The comics that prompted this week’s topic:

From November 1996.

From October, November (1997) and January, February (1998).

From January 1999.

From April 2000.

RISING STARS #14 (Top Cow)
From May 2001.

Now, let me close the loop from those comics, and say the topic is Stuart Immonen. He only provides the cover for ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN in this instance, but provides all honors (cover, writing and art duties) on INFERNO and ACTION COMICS, and then just art in SHOCKROCKETS and RISING STARS. These specific comics are back issues I ordered from Midtown some months back (there’ll be other editions of Quarter Bin culled from such orders, just as the previous Sparx spotlight was), during a recurrent spate of nostalgia for when Stuart came to dominate, at least for me, not just Superman comics, but DC as a whole, when he provided the art for Karl Kesel’s seminal FINAL NIGHT crossover event.

Now, I know for a lot of fans, Stuart is about as relevant as a FINAL NIGHT reference is as a DC event beginning with “Final” (though coming in second to FINAL CRISIS, is, again, a peculiarity and positive connotation that’s somewhat unique to your Comics Reader). I’m not suggesting that Mr. Immonen is totally unappreciated by the fan community, but as far as I’m concerned, he really is, and criminally so. For the last few years he’s been mired in a fairly unexceptional run with Marvel (which, against, is a fairly relative statement, since I very much appreciated the fact that he got to work on ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN while such a statement was still relevant, and thought his evolving style had gotten better than how I’d last seen it), a far cry from how I like to remember him, and hope that he might still one day return to, one of the definitive styles and takes on the Man of Steel, managing to stand out in a time when there were regularly four unique takes, even when all of them were working on pretty much the same stories.

Stuart has a larger career than will be covered in this column, but I’m still getting around to the rest of it, so what I write will seem to be a little limited by some estimations, but even a little is a lot more than most fans generally enjoy. I want to circle back to FINAL NIGHT for a moment. Even though it isn’t written by Stuart, it perfectly represents the kind of vision his work embodies, a deeply human and evocative interpretation of superhero comics that seems to be entirely ignorant of the vast tradition other creators draw from and add to on a monthly basis, even in this fairly expansive era we now enjoy. Karl Kesel is another deeply unappreciated talent, from the school of Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, and James Robinson, ideological successors of Alan Moore who took an abiding appreciation of the past and merged it with a dynamic present. But while it’s apparent with other creators, with Stuart, it’s a part of the background flavor, just another element that is combined to present an original vision.

You might say that it’s obvious that he came from the Legion of Super-Heroes factory, since partisans of that corner of DC lore often seem to bend in a certain direction, and every now and again, his DC work would reflect back on his time with the original teen team sensation, as with the cover of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which sees Superman reflected in the face of Ferro, a new version of an established Legion character who was one of the most prominent efforts of the company’s efforts to make the team relevant by sticking a few of its members in the present (a trick the company has tried again in recent years, and this time, it might actually have stuck). INFERNO, in fact, is another such effort, and while Stuart’s vision of modern youth culture might owe more to Dan Jurgens than Justin Bieber, I was more than happy to finally read it because it is, after all, one of the few projects where he was able to have total creative control.

He was a precursor to Tony Daniel in that regard, graduating to ACTION COMICS after apprenticing for several years with Kesel on ADVENTURES, and beginning a distinguished run on his own. His ultimate statement with DC’s flagship hero, SUPERMAN: END OF THE CENTURY, would be published in February 2000, and pretty mark his end with the company. (By the way, I highly recommend, if you want to sample Stuart’s work from this era, reading it. Or read it just to read a forgotten gem.)

SHOCKROCKETS, by the way, is like a more contemporary STAR WARS, and is from the mind of Kurt Busiek. I would probably recommend reading that, too. You’ll know RISING STARS from J. Michael Straczynski’s early comics days. Stuart was a guest artist.

On the one hand, I can understand why it would have been difficult for fans to get into his art, since it was pretty much the opposite of what Image had conditioned them to expect, and since it wasn’t painted, not impressive enough for those who were wowed by Alex Ross. It was simple, but deceptively so, not too enamored of the strict realism others would glom onto as a counterbalance to the cartoonish proportions most artists favored. Stuart, better than anyone, knew the “man” inside Superman, but still made him look inspiring. In many ways, if you were to compare any modern Superman comic with the originals by Siegel and Shuster, it would be Stuart Immonen’s that feel like a real successor, a real update without the sense that you’re being hoodwinked.

How exactly a talent like that becomes an afterthought is completely beyond me. He’s changed his style to fit in with the times, to blend in, to, in essence, become Clark Kent, rather than Superman, but Stuart Immonen, with all due apologies to Clark, is no Clark Kent. He’s Superman. And he deserves the sky to soar in.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Finite Vacation

I'll be on vacation for the next two weeks, but will be back with more exciting comics thoughts!