Friday, September 30, 2011

Quarter Bin #18 "The Victorian"

One of the interesting things about comics, which I hope I’ve alluded to in the past, is that it’s a medium that’s so much harder to reach a consensus on than a lot of others, especially as the years advance. Movies are built to be mainstream, but even the independent scene isn’t terribly difficult to follow, depending on regular distribution. Music, and when the public thinks about music it’s generally mainstream (it’s when you talk about individual tastes and different regions you can begin to appreciate how insane the music scene is for most artists). Books are almost built for the mainstream, too, even in the digital age, where readership is all about visibility, but books are something you can easily track down, through any number of channels, both in physical stores and online catalogues. TV is perhaps most analogous to comics, in that you begin with the major networks, broadcast free and with regular channels of advertisement, and then you get into the jungle of cable, which in recent years has done a better job of defines itself with original content, whether with reality programming that has influenced the networks, or in the scripted material that reflects what the networks do best, but in ways they can’t. But the more cable has expanded its viewership, the more diluted the potential viewership becomes. No one wins when everyone wins.

But that’s not exactly what this is about. Even if most shows with high visibility are now released to some home entertainment platform, there are many more, from the past and even from the present, that have slipped through the cracks, and potentially live only in the memories of the fans they were able to capture on original broadcast. It’s kind of like that with comics. There’ve always been major publishers with high awareness in the market, and also the smaller ones, who maybe get exposure and maybe don’t, publishing comics the vast majority of readers will never hear about. Try flipping through one of those Diamond catalogues and honestly admitting you’ll be able to espouse the merits of every publisher and comic contained within them. How many of those comics are even in ten percent of actual, physical comics stores?

And it’s not just new series being launched, forever destined to remain in single-digit issue counts. Sometimes, a series can be published for years, even decades, without that majority of readers ever being aware of them, and it’s not just because most people associate superheroes with comics, or even the graphic novel crowd, and will never bother with anything else. There are far more comics, with limited availability, than even an inclusive catalogue can adequately represent. Most people will assume, if they think about it at all, that comics being published through such limited means, will probably not be very good, and maybe they’re right. The vast majority of creators who transition from an independent publisher to Marvel or DC will still have come from a company like Image, which can afford to set obvious standards in its output, and not from some obscure series or company.

Which brings me to contradictions like THE VICTORIAN. Now, granted this was a book published by a respected small-press label like Penny Farthing, but even that wasn’t enough to truly get it noticed, not even when a respected creator like Len Wein took over writing duties. I only heard about THE VICTORIAN from Diamond (naturally), thought it looked interesting at the time, something like an indy STARMAN (appropriately enough), but never thought in a million years I’d have the chance to actually physically come across it, unless I went digging on my own. (There is certainly satisfaction in the hunt, but the majority of consumers operate on the belief that anything worth finding should be easy to find, and this principle doesn’t necessarily consider exclusivity as a factor.) Not long after this discovery, actually, I came across the reprint volumes of Dean Motter’s MISTER X, which even the reprints and constant glowing praise from his peers couldn’t rescue from the same obscurity it had already existed in on original publication (for a while, Dark Horse began to support Motter, and I’ll be getting back to these efforts here at Comics Reader at some point).

Fast-forward a few years, and I was randomly digging through the back issues at Escape Velocity, and had recently rediscovered that Diamond catalogue and remembered THE VICTORIAN. I didn’t think it would be likely, but I decided to check and see if the store actually had any copies. Turns out it did. So:

From December 1999.

THE VICTORIAN #1 (Penny Farthing)
From March 1999.

THE VICTORIAN #23 (Penny Farthing)
From April 2004.

Escape Velocity actually had a few more issues, but I contented myself with this small handful, just to see if the reality of the book matched my expectations. The SOURCEBOOK covers the first six issues of the series, and isn’t actually a very good introduction, featuring bad editing that jumps around key points without specifically letting the reader understand the appeal of the endeavor. The first issue, however, is plenty amazing. The twenty-third issue, two issues before the conclusion of the series, is more than enough to convince anyone that this really was a special book, like Y: THE LAST MAN, or a comic book version of LOST.

THE VICTORIAN is the product of Trainor Houghton’s imagination, though to my knowledge he never actually wrote a single issue of the series. Marlaine Maddux was the original writer, before Len Wein came aboard. To describe THE VICTORIAN is like presaging the current steampunk fad: a secret society from the 19th Century produces competing individuals who find themselves in our modern era, one who wants to reshape the world to his specifications, and the other, our title character, who will do anything to stop him. The cast of characters who help both of them are quickly developed in the first few issues, and remain important to the end.

I tracked down THE VICTORIAN, ACT V: SELF-EXSOULMENT, published in 2008 (previous collections were released in 1999, 2002, 2003, and earlier in 2008), so I could see how it concluded, and once again I was not disappointed. If this book had been published by Vertigo, or even IDW, for instance, it’d have greater readership, even now. Instead, and I can’t speak completely for how it was received by the greater comics community, it went almost immediately to obscurity. General fans wouldn’t have known it existed, and, doubtless, all the major awards went to other comics, either popular ones or graphic novels.

THE VICTORIAN is a great comic, and it deserves wide recognition, but it will probably never come. I could explain its pleasures in greater detail, and perhaps get a few more readers interested, but that would be like saying it’s enough to feed a few homeless people, and let the rest fend for themselves (which is not in any way saying charity is wrong). It’s frustrating when a national publication (when it was a national publication) like WIZARD spent all its time doing everything that the regular comics reader would already have been able to find out on their own, and let the comics scene otherwise slip completely out of focus, because that’s exactly what it’s like in general. The Internet was supposed to make everything so much more accessible, and it’s only made culture feel a lot more like cable television, if even that, just a lot of people clamoring for attention, and getting a lot of small audiences and no audiences as a result. You’d think a bad economy that was supposed to shrink the comics market would have made this easier, but that’s exactly the opposite of what’s happened. DC undergoes another relaunch, IDW blossoms into a new Image or Dark Horse, and everything else remains pretty much exactly the same (oh, and WIZARD ceases publication).

Until recently I worked in a national bookstore, and I took great pride in maintaining the comics section, marveled (no pun intended) as new product constantly surged into the warehouse, and the collections not printed by Marvel or DC had just as much room to fill. Not everything was represented, naturally. There still seemed to be more enthusiasm for manga, a greater sustained presence for complete runs of a series. That’s a different story, a different gripe. But there are so many comics, and so little effort at maintaining a constant, representative presence, it just boggles the mind. Why can’t someone have a store that can hold all these graphic novels, not just new releases and the perennial reprint favorites, but those that give a true face to what comics can and have accomplished over the years? Why can’t a book like THE VICTORIAN, or MISTER X or WASTELAND, be found easily?

People will say economics, and believe that covers the whole story, the whole necessary explanation. I don’t believe that’s true. I believe it’s simply because no one wants to put the time and energy and enthusiasm necessary to help something like a graphic novel store succeed. I’m not talking about a comic book store, where most people will think about new releases or back issues, or the places in big markets that can afford to inventory all of these things, in significant quantities. I’m talking about a place for readers who just want to read what comic book creators have produced over the years, both the stories a lot of people know, and those most people don’t. Is that really so impractical? Are we really at a point in our cultural evolution where it’s impossible to attract large audiences to quality material? I know digital seems to be the way to go, but it can’t and it shouldn’t be the only way to go. Even if it’s just collectors swapping fond memories, what about a store, or a series of stores, where old trade paperbacks go to be resold? Have you ever been to a used bookstore with a huge graphic novel section?

Again, economics, pipe dreams, the American Dream. I believe in comics, not just the ones everyone knows, the ones everyone awards, but the ones everyone ought to be reading, whether or not they’re still printing fresh material, stuff like THE VICTORIAN. Yeah, I found it, but it should be easier, a matter-of-course, for something like that, not simply forgotten, but enjoyed by new generations.

It would be nice.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Stars be my destiny

One of the things that I’m not sure I’ve made perfectly clear here at Comics Reader is that I’m, relatively speaking, a ZERO HOUR baby. To be a little more clear, my experience as a comics fan began roughly at the time of the 1994 “Crisis in Time” event that saw every book DC published at that time, including a slew of new launches, basically reboot with #0. If that sounds familiar, then you know your New 52.

ZERO HOUR was its own flashpoint, and doesn’t get nearly enough modern credit, and maybe I say that because I was just getting into the chance to read comics on a regular basis at that particular point in time. It was Ron Marz and Darryl Banks’ GREEN LANTERN that served as my most consistent gateway at that time (which was only appropriate, since, at least in 1994, ZERO HOUR served as the culmination of Hal Jordan’s story, following “Emerald Twilight” and the dawn of Parallax), but so much of what I later came to admire about comics came about because of this event, it became increasingly difficult for me to forget about it. My brother got the complete set of zero issues, something I was infinitely jealous about, and would sneak looks at them whenever I got the chance. Like the New 52, DC used the opportunity to vet new and retooled concepts (FATE obviously didn’t stick). The more I caught up with these efforts, the more I became convinced, as I still am, that PRIMAL FORCE was one of the great unsung creative efforts in comic book lore. I somehow managed to avoid STARMAN, though; no matter how much critical acclaim it garnered (much the same way as I never considered reading SANDMAN during its original run, something I’m still trying to make up for, even though I’ve come to deeply admire Neil Gaiman as a writer and especially novelist) I remained a committed dilettante to James Robinson’s opus.

It probably didn’t help that STARMAN was best known for its deep mythology and sense of history; I already had GREEN LANTERN, and was getting ready to obsess over Mark Waid’s FLASH, which, even with “The Return of Barry Allen” and “Terminal Velocity,” was only getting warmed up. Robinson, besides, was playing with a legacy that meant nothing to me; Ted Knight hadn’t truly been relevant in decades, and none of the subsequent attempts until ZERO HOUR had occurred anywhere near my experience. Even the emotionally jarring experience of brothers David and Jack Knight meant little to me, since Jack was always planned to be a rebel, and I liked my heroes pure back then. I saw nothing at that time that dissuaded me from believing that I would receive any comparable pleasure from STARMAN as I knew from Kyle Rayner and Wally West.

I sampled Jack every now and again, but it never seemed to be the right sample. In STARMAN #38 (the resulting reaction had nothing to do with guest artist Dusty Abell, a talent sorely missed these days), a new version of the Justice League Europe is used as cannon fodder for characters I couldn’t properly appreciate in a vacuum, and poor Amazing Man, a hero with an unfortunate name but fond personal memories from EXTREME JUSTICE, was unceremoniously among them. All told, I read a total of five issues over the course of the book’s first five years, though the trend, excluding the zero issue, actually looked remarkably promising in 1998. I just stopped making the effort, and when I quit comics the next year, didn’t even think twice about it again, for a good long time.

Eventually, I bought the SINS OF THE FATHER collection of the book’s first arc, and that read pretty well. When DC “resurrected” some long-cancelled series during BLACKEST NIGHT, I found that STARMAN #81 was actually one of the specials I was looking forward to most. I tracked down STARMAN #80, the actual final issue, and enjoyed that. I think part of the problem was always that I didn’t care one way or the other about James Robinson himself. His work has proven to be consistently erratic over the years, in that he has never been one of those writers who suddenly becomes ubiquitous (though STARMAN did alone him to do just that, for a while, and just outside of my experience). I knew about THE GOLDEN AGE, his famed Justice Society effort, but didn’t read that until years later. I read his Superman books but didn’t feel very inspired, much as I’d feel about his JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA material, except for JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRY FOR JUSTICE. CFJ was one of my favorite books, consistently, during its initial release, and Robinson did me a favor without even knowing it with the essays he included each issue about his love for the characters he’d chosen to use in the story. Here was finally my entry-point James Robinson experience!

Okay, so at this point I hope you are aware that Borders, the second-largest bookstore chain in the US, finished its liquidation process this month, and thus is no longer in business. This is particularly relevant to me, since I worked for the company during its final five years of existence. Anyone who’s ever worked during such a liquidation perhaps will share the temptation to begin carving the place up for the resulting bargain prices while at the same time experience paranoia at losing out on particular targets. One of mine was STARMAN OMNIBUS VOLUME 5. Luckily, as you might assume, I was able to get it.

The star attraction, as it were, of this volume is the space epic “Stars My Destination,” which basically unites every member of the Starman legacy. Having never read the series regularly, it was certainly quite a gamble, considering the volume covers #s 47-60, but Robinson provides remarkably candid commentary to both the period in general and issue by issue. In short, I became compelled to read the rest of the omnibus collection (which, practically speaking, probably won’t happen too soon), and am now a fan of STARMAN. These issues don’t spend too much time developing Jack Knight, but that’s okay. Hey, so when does that MIST book get underway, James? Hopefully soon?

Anyway, I’m just glad to finally close this particular ZERO HOUR loop.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Quarter Bin #17 "Nightwing and other legacies"

Amidst the eternal partisan bickering between DC and Marvel fans is the debate about which company has amassed a greater legacy. Marvel fans are cocky about the fact that they’ve had the superior sales number for years now, and can point to a remarkably consistent continuity dating back to the dawn of the Marvel Age in the 1960s as proof. DC can still argue that it’s been around longer, and that Batman and Superman are still more iconic than Spider-Man and the X-Men.

Me, I still like to talk in derivatives. Deadpool, the wisecracking “Merc with a Mouth,” is in some respects the mutant version of Spidey (as if the mask isn’t, well, a dead giveaway), who is in many ways a knockoff of Robin, the Boy Wonder sidekick of Batman introduced decades earlier. Robin is also known as Dick Grayson, who in later years evolved into the character known as Nightwing (who has just completed a second and very successful run as a replacement Batman, thank you very much). The one thing, beyond smart aleck humor, that Spidey and Dickey have in common is that they were both originally intended to be reader surrogates, someone young fans could identify with. Both have gone a long way toward growing up, however, and much as the median age of fans has gone up, so too has the base age of Misters Parker and Grayson.

When Mark Waid envisioned the future of the DC Universe, he paired Grayson with his sometime Teen Titans love Starfire, and even gave them an offspring, who looked a lot like mommy and went by the name Nightstar in her own crime-fighting career. When he revisited the Kingdom in 1998, he made it a point to spend some time with young Nightstar. I’ll begin this column’s issue commentary with a few of these KINGDOM spotlight spinoffs, more comics I caught up with years later…

From February 1999.

Waid had no idea that his seminal KINGDOM COME would not actually endure as a symbol of DC’s future. How could he? When Magog finally appeared in regular continuity and actually got his own ongoing series, fans responded with apathy. What’s more, Grant Morrison decided to capitalize on the obscure scion of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, daughter of the Demon, Ra’s al Ghul, reshaping him as Damian and the other star in BATMAN AND ROBIN (along with…Dick Grayson!). Waid had previously fashioned the youngster as Ibn al Xu’ffasch, which very cleverly translated as, well, “Son of the Bat,” but…didn’t necessarily roll off the tongue. Still, as Waid envisioned him, his future was bright indeed. He was indeed the heir apparent, but he couldn’t quite figure out, even as an adult, to which legacy, to his father, or perhaps to his grandfather. What’s more, he carries on a romance with Nightstar. Egad, could this dude’s life be any more complicated?

From February 1999.

Hah! Ibn, you have it so easy! The daughter of Dick Grayson and Starfire is even more angst-ridden! She’s haunted by the legacy of death her family seems to dwell in, constantly fearful that she, too, will lose her parents. (Still, she’s got great genes!) Moreso than with Ibn or any other legacy of KINGDOM COME, Nightstar represents an organic continuation of DC continuity, at least as far as the New Teen Titans go (Dick has since been better linked to Babs Gordon, the once and future Batgirl, naturally), and as such, always stood as the most likely of any future comics prognostications to actually happen (I’m looking at you, Marvel 2099, though unlike virtually everyone else by the end of that extended experiment, I actually enjoyed it more than its more contemporary counterparts). Needless to say, I’d read an ongoing Nightstar series, even today. For anyone who isn’t strictly interested in THE KINGDOM and its obsolete Hypertime outcome, this is something you can still easily read and enjoy. (For anyone who actually is, you’ll find a whole alternate explanation to the origin of Magog, including just who Gog is, which conflicts with the one Geoff Johns later established in the pages of JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA. But, after all, this was originally Waid’s tale.)

From February 1999.

The Flash was surprisingly tangential to the overall story in KINGDOM COME, despite the fact that Mark Waid was at the time best known for writing the continuing legacy of the speedster (it was even unclear whether the Mercury-esque figure he and Alex Ross depicted in the 1996 mini-series was Wally West or Jay Garrick). He seemed to make up for that when he got around to THE KINGDOM, and specifically this one-shot, which now stands like a lost gem in the Mark Waid/Flash firmament. Kid Flash in this instance is Iris West, the daughter of Wally West, who has a brother named Barry who’s perpetually disgruntled over the lack of affection they’d gotten from their father, and has rejected the chance to inherit the mantle. Not that Wally has stopped running. In fact, that’s all he ever does, to the point that he’s completely overlooked his daughter’s eagerness to follow in his footsteps (hah!). This whole issue is about Iris trying to get through to him, like a microcosm of Waid’s efforts to establish Wally’s own credentials in the regular FLASH series. As comics fans of 2011 know, Waid did eventually write about Wally West and his two children, but sort of like the immediate follow-up to KINGDOM COME, he was met mostly with disinterest. Funny how things sometimes work out.

One of the themes I routinely return to in this blog is the great exodus I undertook from comics reading in 1999, and how that has regularly provided me with material to revisit for the first time. In some respects, the KINGDOM comics I just wrote about were part of the run-up to this event (Countdown to Schism!), since although I was certainly interested in what Mark Waid had to say about the further adventures of his seminal KINGDOM COME work, I didn’t have the money to read all of them on original release. As I’ve suggested this column, Nightwing/Dick Grayson has been a character I’ve followed throughout my comics experience. His attainment of an ongoing series in 1996 was one of the most important developments of that experience, and something I necessarily had to try and forget when I stopped reading. Nightwing was hot for a short period following the debut of that series, but he was never going to be someone, say in the pages of Wizard magazine, fans in general would breathlessly await the latest storylines concerning. He was always going to play second-fiddle to those he most closely resembled: Batman, Spider-Man, even Daredevil. Aside from the fact that he used to be Robin, Dick just wasn’t in himself an icon. That helped make it easy for Dan DiDio to at one point consider him possible cannon fodder during INFINITE CRISIS. (No, seriously!)

Still, Nightwing comics kept getting written. Chuck Dixon had launched NIGHTWING as writer, and was still at it three years later, and wouldn’t leave the book until 2002. His successor, Devin K. Grayson, was still at it by the time I came back in 2005, but had run afoul of the fans by apparently emasculating Dick in her Tarantula storyline. Anyway, here’re some comics from the limbo period I eventually tracked down:

From September 2001.

OUR WORLDS AT WAR was an otherwise forgotten crossover event that symbolized the kind of comics DC was attempting to make at the time, that broke all the rules the previous decade had established, thereby theoretically making it safe for new fans, made famous by the black background amended to Superman’s famous shield, and the incidental timing of the fallout issue released soon after 9/11. Nightwing got his own spotlight special, written by Dixon, in which Dick and Barbara Gordon become entangled in a mostly unrelated plot filled with mind-bending time-travel. See what I mean about Starfire?

From March 2002.

Dixon’s still writing, sharing the Dick Grayson spotlight with the “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?” crossover event, one that’s been completely forgotten. Completely miring these efforts is artist Trevor McCarthy, whose cartoony style is a worthy successor to Scott McDaniel and precursor to Phil Hester, at least as far as the Nightwing sequences go, but is completely out of place otherwise. I’m reminded, however, that it was as much letterer John Costanza as Dixon and McDaniel who set the tone for the series, whose style Willie Schubert continues to evoke this issue.

From July 2002.

Dixon has a different artist this issue (William Rosado, for the record), but is still hip-deep in crossover, this time “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” (of course it’s related to the other one, silly). It’s actually Dixon’s penultimate issue on the book, before his “Nightwing: Year One” arc some thirty issues later.

From September 2002.

Devin Grayson’s debut! Having previously written a Nightwing/Huntress mini-series, not to mention the BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS ongoing title, Devin wasn’t a completely unknown commodity, but judging from letters column comments, she wasn’t an entirely trusted one, either (must have made the backlash all that much easier). I will go on record as saying I probably prefer Devin Grayson’s Nightwing work to just about any other run, including Chuck Dixon’s, which had previously set the standard (and was probably Dixon’s best work).

From October 2004.

Well into Devin’s run, the offending event has already taken place, Tarantula has killed Blockbuster, and everyone’s primed for the big NIGHTWING #100 (which I did get to read upon release!). Serialized comics storytelling just doesn’t get any better than Devin’s Dick Grayson, especially how she managed to so easily transition Dixon’s work into a crescendo that eventually saw Dick “mobbed up” (how these comics have never been collected is one of modern comics’ biggest crimes) and witness to the destruction of his adopted (if horribly named) hometown during INFINITE CRISIS.

From January 2009.

From Grayson there was a succession of writers, including Bruce Jones (never got a chance to find his groove), Marv Wolfman (actually did some interesting things), and Peter Tomasi, who had the chance to illustrate the transition from Nightwing to Batman, as this issue helps explain. This is not, however, the last issue of the series. That bugger proved to be a hell of a challenge to find. At the time, I had just lost Heroes & Dragons as my regular comics supplier, and had not yet chosen Midtown-online as its replacement. I relied instead on a combination of trips to Escape Velocity (never a strictly regular occurrence) and my friend Daniel to stay on top of “Batman R.I.P.,” by far the most important event from that period. I remained obsessed with reading the final NIGHTWING for the next several years. I already had this one.

I have other Nightwing adventures to write about in later editions of Quarter Bin, including, yes, the holy grail I’d sought for so long...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Knight and Squire and Zombies!

Let me just state for the record that I loved CAPTAIN BRITAIN AND MI13. That being said, I kind of prefer Paul Cornell being a DC writer.

While most readers who’ve followed him since the switch know Cornell for his Lex Luthor arc in ACTION COMICS, there was also KNIGHT AND SQUIRE, based on characters created by Grant Morrison, seen previously in the Club of Heroes and, believe it or not, the Ultramarine Corps (actually having made their debut in 1999’s JLA #26 as one-page replacement members). One of the original international Batmen, Knight now has the distinction of being a de facto charter member of Batman, Inc., and with the imminent debut of BATWING, officially the first of them to have his own book.

KNIGHT AND SQUIRE was a six issue mini-series that straddled 2010 and 2011, and as such bumped into the comics partition I’ve valiantly attempted to enforce this year. I caught a few issues here and there, but always knew this would be something that would be a natural addition to my trade collection. Cornell obviously had a blast writing it, and was granted liberties not usually available to comics creators, including the chance to totally immerse himself in an outright British style, which happened to necessitate a running commentary/translation at the end of every issue, in which he explained the origins of characters and phrases as they related to British history and pop culture. I’m a sucker for extras, which is just another reason I’m glad the letters column has been reinstated as an institution, but any time a creator actually has the space to talk about their project (early issues of AIR allowed G. Willow Wilson essay space; James Robinson got to talk about the characters he’d chosen in JUSTICE LEAGUE: A CRY FOR JUSTICE), I feel a little more included.

The book itself is jokey, but it also takes itself seriously, and comes off feeling like a giant tease for a greater comic detailing a whole comics line, really, of the characters Cornell ends up chronicling (in many ways, almost like [forty-five], Andi Ewington’s innovative graphic novel). Knight and Squire, obviously, are a British Batman and Robin, but there’s also Jarvis Poker, the British Joker, whose role increases dramatically as the story progresses (eventually involving the Joker himself); Hank the Incredibly American Butler; the Time in a Bottle enchanted pub where heroes and villains can interact peacefully; the resurrected Richard III; and many other amusing details. The fact that Cornell was allowed to write this book is just another testament to the creative freedom available at DC. His work on CAPTAIN BRITAIN was easily one of my favorite Marvel projects, but it always felt a little hamstrung. Combined with his expansive work on ACTION COMICS, with KNIGHT AND SQUIRE Cornell has easily demonstrated himself to be one of the most inspired writers in comics today, and has two New 52 books (DEMON KNIGHTS and STORMWATCH, both of which seem like DC versions of CAPTAIN BRITAIN) to prove the company’s continued interest in him.

For the record, the trade collection does feel the need to tack on “Batman” to the title, even though the mini-series got off without it. If you feel you need any such excuses, I won’t get in your way, but you’d be doing yourself a favor catching this one. Cornell, it should be noted, is ably assisted by artist Jimmy Broxton, who also contributes to the reprinted extras pages with amusing fake ads for such products and services as Mad Hat Harry’s Felons of High Barnet and Hexo Magic Seasoning. You’ll just have to read it to get it, I guess…

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Quarter Bin #16/the life story of the Flash

On this special occasion, this flashpoint, I’m bending the rules a little, talking about back issues and new comics at the same time, and while the New 52 is technically the impetus, the subject, once again, is really Geoff Johns, a man whose impact on comics is still only emerging.

The Quarter Bin contribution (which for the record actually set me back two bucks in this particular instance) is AVENGERS #58 (473) from November 2002, as well as STARS AND S.T.R.I.P.E. #12 from July 2000. These are among his earliest notable titles, relatively speaking (Johns actually began writing comics in 1999), but both adequately demonstrate the penchant he’d pursue into 2011. As I’ve detailed previously, I was not actively reading comics during this period, so early Geoff Johns has always been something of a wash for me. I wasn’t even totally sold on him after GREEN LANTERN: REBIRTH, so what exactly am I supposed to say I know?

STARS AND S.T.R.I.P.E. is the first ongoing series Johns launched, a sort of pastiche to the Golden Age that dragged it kicking and screaming into the 21st century, updating a couple of obscure characters who might otherwise have deserved to be consigned to comics limbo. Combined with the relaunch of the Justice Society, STARS was an indication that Geoff had no qualms looking to the past for inspiration, even if he wasn’t slavishly devoted to the specifics of what he looked at. By the time he worked for Marvel, however, I had a much different impression of what kind of creator he actually was.

In short, there was one particular moment that got noticed by the Internet community circa 2003, and if you know what I’m talking about, great, because otherwise I don’t want to confuse the matter here. Suffice it to say, but my first real impression of Geoff Johns boiled down to the opinion that he was a new breed of writer that equated salacious and immature material as an appropriate way to write modern comics. I’ve never been much of a Marvel fan (though I’ve worked on that in recent years), and so combined with the fact that I wasn’t actually reading comics at the time, I took it for granted that this was still the case, and that I wanted nothing to do with the career of Geoff Johns.

All of this is to say, at least in the case of AVENGERS #58, I probably couldn’t have been farther from the mark. Even with the big movie and all the momentum headed into next summer, I will probably never be much of an Avengers fan (a bad experience with a much-hyped Kurt Busiek relaunch probably didn’t help), but I know enough about the team and its importance to Marvel lore (especially under the auspices of Brian Michael Bendis, who’s done everything in his power to elevate the team to the level of the X-Men franchise). There’s definitely a core team of all-star Avengers, but most of its membership seems to have consisted of the same general mediocrity that the Justice League regularly devolves into, despite the perennial efforts to concentrate on the heavy hitters.

Periodically, the Avengers get that same kind of treatment (now would not be one of those times, since everyone and their mother has been a member in the modern era of one incarnation or another). At least as far as my impression of AVENGERS #58 and Geoff’s overall ambitions seem to have been, it would seem Geoff Johns was very much a proponent of the all-star iteration. This particular comic is part of a greater epic which sees the world on the brink of a fantastic crisis, with the team called on to lead the world in a very overt manner, with most of the onus falling on Captain America, something he seems incredibly reluctant about (in fact, prior to Ed Brubaker, Steve Rogers was very much a Hal Jordan kind of guy, bucking authority; CIVIL WAR was his last great, or perhaps greatest, moment in that regard).

It makes me wonder what kind of impact Geoff might have had at Marvel if he’d made a stronger commitment. Don’t get me wrong; I’m extremely glad that he’s basically become the face of DC. The thing is, his departure from the House of Ideas left the door open for Bendis to swoop in and assume control of the Avengers, which has become a series of crossover events that have arguably done nothing but weaken the concept of the Avengers Geoff apparently worked hard to strengthen, including the moment I will continually refer to as the most infamous moment of modern comics, “No more mutants,” the most gratuitous and backward development that still has yet to be untangled (and even the Young Avengers’ efforts in that regard has since been overlooked, since Bendis has done such a great job of obscuring the message).

I’m not here to argue the top writer between DC and Marvel. I’m not a Marvel guy, so maybe Brian Bendis really is awesome, and his work is worthy of being at the forefront of the industry’s top publisher. All I know for sure is, I infinitely prefer Geoff Johns, and I have new reasons every year to affirm that belief. FLASHPOINT has lately confirmed it all over again.

As with any success story, there’s always a backlash that seeks to undermine that popular by saying it’s not actually earned (and so, you might say, my opinion of Bendis). The critics will say Johns milks Silver Age nostalgia, and writes in generalities, barely covering the minimum requirements for storytelling by glossing biographical material for entire issues at a time. To me, that kind of writing is endlessly fascinating. Any writer who can get inside the head of a fictional character has more than done their job by my book. I don’t just want to follow a lot of action, or some twisting adventure. I don’t care if I’m reading something I’m infinitely familiar with, or something brand-new. It takes a great fool to imagine something new, after all, but a greater fool not to acknowledge something that already exists.

FLASHPOINT, ultimately, isn’t really about some flashy event with an alternate reality or launching some bold new era, but rather the culmination of the story Geoff has been telling with Barry Allen since FLASH: REBIRTH. Where most fans saw only a character who’d met a noble end two decades ago, a favorite member of a distinguished superhero lineage, Geoff saw potential. He didn’t just see the man who’d idolized Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, but a figure who could live out the fantasy so many other comic book superheroes could never touch, someone who could revisit the greatest tragedy of his past, and find out the consequences of interfering.

I honestly don’t know if the death of his mother was a touchstone event for Barry prior to Geoff Johns, because the reference material I have readily available doesn’t even mention it, but that’s what Geoff has been meditating on since Barry’s return, his extreme guilt, and incredible rage upon learning the truth, that it was his mortal enemy, the Reverse Flash, who caused it. No other writer has shaped a whole crossover event on such a personal story, and stuck with it (there was Hal Jordan’s insane quest in ZERO HOUR, and the Scarlet Witch in HOUSE OF M, but mostly, it’s usually just everyone reacting against some inciting event). I would argue that FLASHPOINT #5 is ultimately the most emotionally satisfying denouement for such an event.

I’ve been seeing a parallel with the TV show FRINGE throughout FLASHPOINT, perhaps even its very nature (as Barry and Thomas Wayne would themselves argue, given the chance), and for this, this is a very good thing. A great story will always take inspiration from the most appropriate sources, no matter the original medium. FLASHPOINT is a different kind of comics event because it tells a different kind of story, and without Geoff Johns, that wouldn’t have been possible. He understood that Barry Allen had at least one other great story in him, and it had nothing to do with all the things others had previously believed were obvious. He took a look at Barry himself, and never looked back.

The more I read FLASHPOINT, the more I realized I would have to read the whole thing. I really wasn’t supposed to. As I’ve been trying to make clear throughout the year, 2011 is supposed to represent a break in reading comics for me. I’ve come to blame FLASHPOINT for the zip line that has strung me along the last few months. I know the New 52 is upon us, but in many ways, I’ve now reached the break line (if I can manage it). Barry’s back in the blocks. Here’s the rest of the stuff I should not have bought:

This is a “rough cut” preview for a local indy project Escape Velocity had on display on its counter, from the mind of Matt Campbell. Its concept is actually not that bad, but I worry that Matt might be confusing the actual storytelling with a more generic adventure narrative than he really needs. Anyway, worth a look.

Ron Marz and Darryl Banks back together is a reunion I’m very happy to experience, even if it’s patently nostalgic. Kyle Rayner very much became my Green Lantern, and this is the team that helped make that possible. Coupled with a flashback to Kyle’s relationship with Donna Troy (how’s it she has never had her own series?), one of his many failed relationships (which also include Jade and Soranik Natu). Even the cover was absolutely classic!

Brian Augustyn, who was a regular collaborator on the book during the decade, was tapped for this one mostly because Mark Waid is engaged elsewhere these days, but this is an interesting look at what he might have done on his own (then again, my blackout from just about the end of that period might have overlooked Brian’s brief solo run, apparently alluded to in a note). There’s also a Mark Millar flashback, for the record.

I couldn’t possibly be happier that the SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL team of Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove, rather than Dan Jurgens (who otherwise would have been the obvious choice) was tapped for this one. I always felt they didn’t receive the recognition they deserved. This tale more than demonstrates that neither has lost a step. How about a comeback?

The book I’ve been calling a de facto All Star series was not a disappointment, and hey, is also written by Geoff Johns, featuring Jim Lee on art. A sort of answer to Lee’s more official All Star effort with Frank Miller, we get to enjoy the often-overlooked dynamic between Batman and Hal Jordan (with some terrific insights, I might add), plus the reintroduction of Cyborg, Vic Stone, whom Johns has been itching to use more extensively for a while (if the FLASH OMNIBUS was any indication), and a really unusual look at Superman, too. I may have to officially call this a can’t-miss book.

The infamous team of Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis/Kevin Maguire is back together again! (Remember all the nostalgia tours last decade?) Also, please note Multi-Man, also seen in CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN MUST DIE!

I was extremely confused why a bunch of ’90s elements were featured in this one, until I actually read it. Pretty clever, Marv Wolfman (though, really, who would argue that John Byrne didn’t deserve this one?). I’d been avoiding the older decades in these retro specials mostly because I was less familiar with them (and thus reading them would have been less enjoyable), but that was a clever ploy to trick me into this one, I must admit. Worth it.

I don’t know much the conclusions to these individual books will affect the New 52, but wouldn’t it be awesome if White Lantern Abin Sur actually did pop up?

I love the conclusion to this one, just so horribly appropriate.

As the event itself progressed, it became easy for me to forget that Cold was originally one of my motivating factors to be interested, because Geoff spent almost his exclusive focus in the main book on Barry Allen, with most of the rest on Thomas Wayne (which again, made that ending so powerful). Not surprisingly, our good Citizen doesn’t get away with his deception, but reading a Rogues book is always fun. Shouldn’t there be an ongoing by now?

What a poignant and tragic ending. That was another benefit, for sure. I didn’t read the Wonder Woman or Aquaman titles, but I have to figure theirs were appropriate, too. I took a look at the conclusion to PROJECT SUPERMAN, and that one had a similar conclusion. This whole event was good for that whole Elseworlds vibe. Wouldn’t it be nice if Elseworlds came back?

This is another one I wish I knew how much the conclusion actually affects the New 52. Do I consider this the death of Bart Allen? I guess we’ll just have to find out. I like the nod Max Mercury receives, though. I still hope for more sustained Max goodness!

Tony Bedard concludes one era of Green Lantern lore with a cliffhanger! Still, it was fun to see the dynamics of the Corps at a climactic occasion, and there were some clever developments and moments. What’s to become of Ganthet?!?

Almost overlooked this one (for some reason the latest issue was a shelf below the other one), but I made a vow to read every issue of this book, and so was glad that I finally spotted it. Clever digital shenanigans and a demonstration of Bruce Wayne’s business sense, something that was necessary for the whole Batman Inc. concept that the character has made integral to both aspects of his life. Only Grant Morrison could have told a story like this.

The last issue (before the first one, as Mike pointed out on the other side of the counter!), written by Paul Cornell, ostensibly wrapping up the latest Doomsday story, but really making a final statement on the Man of Steel in this particular era, plus revisiting Lois & Clark, perhaps for one last time, at least for now!