Thursday, May 26, 2011

Quarter Bin #9 "Nightwing: The Target"

Continuing our themes editions of this column, let’s have a look at:

From 2001.

A little-known prestige format one-shot (hell, the idea of “prestige format” is itself something of a lost art at DC these days), and a comic I only even heard about last year, the main appeal of it was the creative team of Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel. Since neither name carries the same weight in 2011 as it did ten years ago, let’s take a look back at why exactly I would care so much.

While there are in fact many reasons, the most relevant one is that Dixon and McDaniel were the original team behind the NIGHTWING series launched in 1996. Dixon was a company writer, who’d helped make his reputation on books like ROBIN and GREEN ARROW, while McDaniel was known for a run on DAREDEVIL, a comparable vigilante figure, whose style would be well-suited to conveying the animated look of a title featuring Dick Grayson, a former circus performer who had become better known as a stalwart Teen Titan and former Boy Wonder than for his ability to hold his own. Incredibly, he’d never carried his own ongoing series to that point. Dixon was needed to give the character credibility, to establish an entire world around him, one separated from Gotham, Dark Knights and Teen Titans. McDaniel was needed to present him in a fashion that set him apart.

To put it mildly, they pulled it off. There are only a few creative teams I will forever hold in great esteem. Ron Marz and Daryl Banks on GREEN LANTERN. Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos on IMPULSE (and early issues of the mishandled X-NATION). Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett on SUPERBOY. Most of these teams seemed to spontaneously form at roughly the same time, perhaps by sheer coincidence, perhaps by inspired editorial selection.

When fans think about that kind of chemistry, they naturally think of tandems like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Marv Wolfman and George Perez, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, the heavy hitters, who either made history or lasted for obscene lengths of time together, sometimes both. For me, simply because I had to privilege of following them personally, I gravitate toward those who simply seemed inspired by each other, to push characters to considerable heights, even if they didn’t always seem to be appreciated. I know that DC certainly admired Kesel and Grummett together. The duo followed Superboy from ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN to a couple of memorable runs in his own title (I’ll be writing more about them later). Marz and Banks had the job of not only completely revamping Green Lantern mythos, but establishing an entirely new character. Waid and Ramos presented what I consider to be the CALVIN + HOBBES of the superhero set.

But Dixon and McDaniel were still unique. Of all the creators mentioned so far, I feel the most continued interest in a guy like McDaniel, who has maintained against all conventional wisdom exactly the same appeal he first demonstrated (at least for me) in NIGHTWING. All these guys became journeymen. It was the nature of what made them so special in the first place, being in the right place at the right time, finding their perfect matches. I have to believe that he thought DC fit his style better than Marvel, because all these years later, Scott’s still there, one of the unsung tenures of comics history. He’s still waiting, maybe, for that next perfect match. (Never mind that he found it with Tony Bedard on THE GREAT TEN, because fans didn’t seem to notice.)

With NIGHTWING, he and Dixon gave Dick Grayson a whole new lease on life. They pushed him into a strongly independent direction, and worked so well together that DC apparently found it appropriate to give them a further spotlight with THE TARGET, which is like their run in miniature, Dick fighting corruption in his adopted hometown of Bl├╝dhaven, a seedier, more obviously corrupt version of Gotham (thus the unwieldy name, and why it was eventually, spectacularly erased from the DC map during INFINITE CRISIS). The title of the book comes from a separate identity Dick assumes during a particularly tricky case, a one-off deal that shows the nuances of Dick’s war on crime, the way it evolved during the course of NIGHTWING (Devin Grayson, when she came to the end of her controversial run, perhaps did it one better, but I don’t suppose we have to get into that now, but suffice it to say, DC had to reboot Nightwing afterward, the first time in that title’s history, over a hundred issues, which is itself a huge testament to the work Dixon and McDaniel began).

The Dick Grayson that exists today, the one who has permanently (we’ll say) assumed the mantle of Batman, is a direct result of the work begun in NIGHTWING, the strong push for character established by Dixon and McDaniel. Something like THE TARGET one-shot, a terrific find if there ever was one, is just another sign that, among all the teams that I personally have come to enjoy in my experiences with comic books over the years, Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel deserve a permanent record of their achievements, reprints of their trade paperbacks, hardcover commemorative collections. Maybe even a return engagement. Maybe McDaniel doesn’t have to look so hard for that next blockbuster collaboration. If anyone can succeed Tony Daniel on BATMAN, or any team deserves to assume control of BATMAN & ROBIN, it would be these two.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A quick note on things to expect in the future...

My parents are in the process of attempting to move, and so I've been receiving boxes of things I left behind from when I was still living there (which hasn't been since 2004). Years ago my brother had gifted me with some random assortments of comics, and at the time I simply wasn't interested, being heavily invested in numerous ongoing series. Most of it looked like garbage, and so I never really bothered taking a closer look, and so when I brought my comics with me after moving out, those particular ones stayed behind, and I didn't think about them for years.

When I was first informed about the move, I had an opportunity to personally go through all my stuff (it is to be understood that I live in Colorado, and so rarely have to visit home, which is in Maine), and when I remembered them, I took another look at all those random comics. As I was perusing, I kept thinking, "Huh! I don't remember that! Huh! Huh!" You get the idea. I had found a few back when I originally inventoried them, some that immediately interested me, but even those I'd forgotten about. And when the boxes that were shipped here finally arrived, I looked again, and was even more amazed at everything I had glossed over, things that apparently didn't register. Maybe times had changed enough, my perspective had shifted. Or maybe I'm just more desperate now.

Anyway, I'll be writing about these comics in future editions of Quarter Bin. I've got a lot of back issues still to go through, so a lot of themed columns are still forthcoming, but the apparently popular Thousand Title Rundowns will return. Yay!

Of course, I still need to read them first...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I'm Having My Own Flashpoint, Here!

Okay, so for the record, I am no longer technically reading comics, nor all that interested in regularly reading them.

Now, would somebody please remind me?

Oh, and damn Free Comic Book Day. The annual event that, well, hands out free comic books, was this past Saturday (and hopefully you knew that already), and as I have, well, annually, I paid homage to the event, visiting Escape Velocity in downtown Colorado Springs during a very small window before work that day. I got there early. I hoped the store might be open at 10, so yeah, I got there early, and after wasting a good chunk of time elsewhere (the main branch of the local library does in fact carry a good selection of my favorite authors, as it turns out!), still came back in time to be first in line (yay me!) and so I could say that I was the first patron to enjoy the day (oh the ironies of a “former” comic book nerd claiming such an honor!). Because I lingered at the entrance near the counter, however (collecting FEAR ITSELF #2), I was not the first to the free comics table, however (though big props to Mike and/or whoever else decided we could take three comics this year, rather than two, even though I was able to take as many as I wanted when I enjoyed FCBD at Newbury Comics in Burlington, MA years earlier).

This sentence has no parenthical phrase. I grabbed the usual suspects, a DC, Marvel, and Atomic Robo. I’ll talk more about my selections a bit later, but suffice it to say, that was pretty much the extent of my visit that day. I had made a small list of titles to make sure I wouldn’t forget from the regular racks, FEAR ITSELF being one of them, so I could finally take a look at Stuart Immonen’s work on the book, plus any new issues of BATMAN, INC. and, wildest of dreams, maybe a copy of ACTION COMICS #900 (y’know, the one where he “controversially” renounces US citizenship, but hopefully I will get to talk about this one later, when I actually have a copy). I made the list to limit myself, to make sure I hit the essentials, and yes, because I had very little time. I got out in about four minutes, which was considerably less time than my last visit (comics are just one of those things you can spend a good amount of time shopping). I felt pretty proud, only six comics in all, and three of them were free.

The problem is, I keep fretting that I’ve reacquired “the bug.” That I’ve fallen off the wagon. I’ve already made a commitment to go back when that second printing of ACTION #900 arrives. And I know I’ll have more time. And I really, really want to read the Flashpoint comics.

I’m not just talking about the event book itself. Actually, I’m less interested in FLASHPOINT itself than, say, FLASHPOINT: ABIN SUR - THE GREEN LANTERN. Or FLASHPOINT: CITIZEN COLD. Or FLASHPOINT: DEADMAN AND THE FLYING GRAYSONS. Or FLASHPOINT: CANTERBURY CRICKET (I’m damn curious). You get the point. I was one of the fans who went gaga over Tangent Comics. And, to a lesser extent, Amalgam Comics. I’ve never gotten around to reading a lot of them, especially some of the really famous ones like SUPERMAN: RED SON, but Elseworlds. The thing is, as much as I like a good bit of continuity, I like “alternuity” a lot more. I like when familiar facts are played around with, especially when, like Flashpoint is promising, familiar facts are played around with cleverly, in ways that have unexpected resonance with the facts as we know them.

Did I mention that I really, really want to read Flashpoint? Desperately. I suspect that these comics were be collected, in much the same way that every single scrap of BLACKEST NIGHT was eventually collected into massive hardcovers. Financially, I care. But as a fan, I really, really don’t care. I want to read this stuff. Badly. It’s one of those, I’m-convinced-they’ll-become-some-of-my-favorite-comics things. I really am.

So I’m in a bad place right now. I also want to read those Green Lantern movie tie-ins. Most of the time, any comic that is created to cash in on a movie, unless they’re a straight adaptation, are a waste of time and money. These seem different. Not just because Green Lantern, as Geoff Johns and the filmmakers have realized, has a ton of storytelling potential. The characters, though familiar, have so much more to say than even five years of Johns-inspired expansion have been able to tell. And there’s so much passion. These, too, will undoubtedly be collected. But c’mon. A fan is a fan is a fan. And a fan wants to read RIGHT NOW. Sorry. Usually save the caps for comics titles. But you get what I mean. That’s what reading comics tends to do. It makes people crazy.

So, damn you Free Comic Book Day. And here are the comics that were a part of this breakdown:

Dan Slott, so far as I can tell, has been doing, well, an amazing job with Spidey in “Big Time,” pushing all the work that was done during “Brand New Day” to the next level, and whereas that era was accomplished with multiple writers, Slott’s been going it alone, so I cannot give him enough props for that kind of accomplishment. This one’s basically a big advertisement for things that’ve been happening, and a tease for more things that will happen, but it’s a Spider-Man comic. A certain amount of the straight entertainment factor is to be expected. Also, really great to see Humberto Ramos, still riding high all these years after I enjoyed his work in IMPULSE. He’s the rare artist who doesn’t receive all the buzz and hype but who nonetheless maintains the steady awesome output and high profile assignments, year after year. I’m now dreaming of Ramos supplying the art for a Stuart Immonen-scripted adventure…

How many years has Robo been commanding Red 5’s Free Comic Book Day contributions now? It doesn’t matter. Not only is Robo the company’s biggest hit, he’s also still waiting to, well, actually hit, become a smash sensation, that is, explode, break out into the mainstream, the way Hellboy has, in other words, over at Dark Horse. And there’s no reason why Atomic Robo shouldn’t be huge. The work of Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener has been consistently awesome from the beginning, and as creators they’ve finally been noticed by their peers, winning work from the likes of Marvel, but like Fred Van Lente without Herc and/or Cho and/or Ryan Dunlavey, they just aren’t the same without Robo. Sure, this particular FCBD effort includes previews for some other books, but it’s all about Robo! Robo! Robo!

Now, I don’t know if there were other issues I should have had the opportunity to read (but let’s be honest, reading five issues of this comic when I’ve “stopped reading comics” is already pretty awesome); I’m just glad that I finished another Grant Morrison arc. And unlike previous issues, this one’s clearly, as it proves the arc has all along without anyone realizing it, on par with the massive storytelling structure Grant brought to THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE, the Black Glove saga, and other epics. We learn just how big the threat of Doctor Dedalus really is, as we meet even more heroes, including the Hood (who looks a lot like the current Azrael), how insanely complicated his mechanics are (and no one outplots Grant Morrison, except maybe Geoff Johns), and that there really are challenges for Bruce Wayne, even now. Who else writes Batman so that he can meet seemingly every challenge, but still be challenged, and so that it comes off convincingly? It’s the kind of comic book that mocks every single bad connotation outsiders have toward the industry, and that’s the way Grant’s been writing since his career began, why he still seems hungry, when all his contemporaries have either retired or all but retired. He has nothing left to prove. And yet he just keeps proving himself, challenging himself, and challenging comic books themselves. How does he do it? The man’s a true creative dynamo.

FEAR ITSELF #1 & 2 (Marvel)
Matt Fraction is one of Marvel’s so-called Architects, one of the writers it has identified as being not only integral to the company now, but for its future, yet FEAR ITSELF counts as his first event book. Among the books for which he is known is IRON MAN, where he’s helped to bridge the gap between the comics and movie versions of Tony Stark. This event seems like Fraction’s version of that same effort for Thor, so that fans who are intrigued by the new movie might have something to look at afterward. Those who may not be familiar with SIEGE might still be interested to read about Odin’s return to Asgard, or the plans of comparatively ordinary mortals in helping Thor to reclaim his place on Earth. The rest of the story involves the legacy of the Red Skull, and therefore Steve Rogers, and therefore the new Captain American movie. I figure FEAR ITSELF will more or less be the reason Rogers claims his familiar mantle. It both surprises me and doesn’t that James “Bucky” Barnes has still be been embraced as his successor. Batman, Inc. this is not. Stuart Immonen, of course, is on art for this book, and most of it, as has been the norm for his work with Marvel, by design, is not all that familiar to what I knew from his days at DC. There are tiny glimpses, not terribly flattering actually, of what I used to enjoy, but otherwise, it’s not all that distinctive. It’s competent, and Stuart’s obviously dependable, unlike a great many of those who came after him, and became popular and famous, but he’s capable of so much better. So I probably won’t be reading more of this book. I wasn’t all that intrigued or interested. I don’t really care about anything that I’ve read in the first two issues. And Mr. Immonen continues to disappoint me. But I guess he doesn’t need me to be a fan. He’s entrenched at Marvel, something of a stalwart on staff, and is doing indy work that fulfills him otherwise. I just wish I could believe that he was making a difference, at least in the way I believe he did at DC. Maybe it’s just me.

For those who haven’t already picked up a copy of the SECRET ORIGIN trade (either before or after the movie cover edition with a few extras that readers of the regular GREEN LANTERN comic will find familiar, beyond the Ryan Reynolds intro), most of this book is another plug for that arc, Geoff Johns’ version of EMERALD DAWN, with liberal allusions to BLACKEST NIGHT tossed in, which is said to have done much to inspire the filmmakers who will soon fulfill many dreams (at the very least, mine). It wisely skips over the first chapter, which revolves more around Hal Jordan’s background, and instead gives us the revision of the familiar origin, with Abin Sur crashing his ship and bequeathing his ring to Hal. There’s also the preview for FLASHPOINT, as much a reminder of who Barry Allen is as a tease for the strange new world he will soon encounter. It’s exactly the kind of thing Free Comic Book Day should be doing, giving fans what they think they want, and so much more. The Spidey comic also includes a tease for FEAR ITSELF, but I wonder if new readers will care as much about that as they will for the free Green Lantern intro, or old readers as much will the FLASHPOINT intro. As a fan, I relished reading me some Dan Slott, and he’s a perfect writer for readers to read a typical Spider-Man comic, and this is a perfect era for vintage Spider-Man. But it’s perhaps better to give the old and new readers something a little more interesting than that.

But the beauty of Free Comic Book Day is that you can have both, and for nothing at all. I often wonder what the new readers really think, based on these samples. I’ve never been one for as long as I’ve enjoyed this holiday (even if I have to work on it). Maybe, if a year from now and I’ve actually been able to maintain this almost-complete-break, I might better experience what that novice is feeling right now.

Or maybe I already know.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Quarter Bin #8 "Argus"

There’s not going to be much mystery concerning this week’s subject once I say the comics that inspired it, so let’s get that out of the way:

ARGUS #1-6 (DC)
From April through October 1995.

Okay, so you may actually still be scratching your heads, but suffice it to say, but if you guessed “Argus,” then you were correct. Like Sparx (the subject of Quarter Bin #6 a few weeks back), Argus was a product of the 1993 Bloodlines annuals, whose origins have to do with an alien invasion, what began as a series attacks that were supposed to kill, but instead transformed a select group of ordinary joes into members of what was supposed to be a new generation of superheroes.

Argus debuted in THE FLASH ANNUAL #6, and was created by speed guru Mark Waid, and designed by Phil Hester, who also supplies the art for much of the ARGUS mini-series. What helps set this particular Bloodlines character apart from some of the others is the fact that Waid actually used Argus in the FLASH ongoing from time to time, whereas most of the others were quickly abandoned by the host series they sprang from. At the time, Waid was still getting warmed up in his run (these wordplays never get old!), having only recently worked on the seminal “Return of Barry Allen” (which, contrary to its title, did not actually feature the return of Barry Allen, but featured all sorts of breakthrough Speed Force work, including the debut of Max Mercury, one of my favorite characters of all-time). He was busy carving out a whole working mythology, and an extended cast of characters, and while Argus was not, in fact, a speedster, he still worked within the context of what Waid envisioned, which including a broadening of the role a character like the Pied Piper, who began as a Rogue and would eventually (apparently) die as one, could inhabit.

On the surface, Argus appears to be something of a riff on Daredevil, a superhero with vision issues, and a horribly complicated life, and maybe that’s exactly why he never caught on. Now, obviously, I’m arguing that this sells the character short. The mini-series that’s at the heart of this column is a testament to this fact, proves that a good, distinctive story can come out of him. Or that, at the very least, Argus is one of the few Bloodlines creations that remains completely salvageable, along with Sparx, Loose Cannon, and Anima, all of whom have gotten some measure of almost-satisfactory exploration, and comparatively better fates than their contemporaries, excluding Hitman, but not Gunfire (though maybe even he’s redeemable).

ARGUS is written by the team of Mark Wheatley and Allan Gross, and concerns not only an involving exploration of the character as originally envisioned by Waid, but also a considerable evolution of him, taking Argus on a personal odyssey that includes a complicated relationship with his father, his status as a federal agent working deep undercover in a mob, and the loss of his eyes, which has the outcome of bringing out new facets of his powers. Clearly this is not just a book that uses an existing character, but is at every step deeply invested in that character. On that level alone ARGUS is worth reading, since few comic book stories are interested in doing that sort of thing, whether they attempt to mask a thinner version with only the suggestion of such storytelling, or not bothering to write any real characters at all.

Needless to say, however, Argus has been largely absent from comics in recent years, and was quickly forgotten by DC in general not long after this mini-series, and even by Mark Waid himself, who admittedly had a lot of things to work with, and so even when he was working on THE FLASH during that decade, he could only turn to Argus so many times. And, unfortunately, when Waid wasn’t writing him, it was incredibly unlikely, even then, that anyone else would include the character in their stories. As I’ve suggested, Argus appears on the surface to be extremely derivative. When he didn’t catch on like DC might have hoped, even with his own fairly lengthy mini-series, it was only natural for the publisher to forget about him. Argus isn’t flashy enough on his own that his participation in any kind of team book would make much of a difference. DC tried using exactly this kind of character in SHADOWPACT, and that didn’t exactly work out (and it didn’t the first time around, PRIMAL FORCE, either). Without any kind of commitment or substitute home, any hope that Argus might stick around very quickly diminished, and he slipped into superhero limbo.

The whole Bloodlines project was something of a gamble anyway. Trying to introduce even one new superhero is always difficult, but trying to introduce a whole group of new superheroes is even more difficult, especially when they’re supposed to stand on their own, but in fact have a common origin, one that stems from a single event, and be the result of a scenario that itself isn’t very popular, as evidenced by the singular lack of impact these particular aliens have had on subsequent DC lore. And given that DC somewhat liberally employs aliens in its storytelling (its flagship hero is the most famous alien in history), that’s really saying something.

Still, I like to contend that Argus is not a totally worthless concept for modern readers. A man trapped between worlds, and saddled with abilities he can’t always make sense of, that’s the sort of thing that timeless comics are made of. Give another shot, Argus can be timeless, too. As Mark Waid himself has already demonstrated, the character can function entirely independent of his origins, and as ARGUS further demonstrated, the character can also function within the context of his particular elements, and not a word of those origins, again, are particularly relevant. Some characters are bound by their origins, others aren’t. Argus doesn’t need to be. Maybe he doesn’t really matter to a Flash story now, and he doesn’t have to do that, either. You don’t need to know Wolverine was ever a member of the X-Men to enjoy one of his stories, after all. Maybe Argus could join a team, maybe he doesn’t even need to. Maybe there’s another big story within his own framework just waiting to happen, that will explode his possibilities.

Or, hey, maybe he’s just another great discovery for those reading the comics they can find in the back issue bins, where all superheroes have the privilege to exist. Who really wants to call that limbo?