Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Action Comics #3

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Rags Morales

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

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

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

Batgirl #3

Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Ardian Syaf

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

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

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

Green Lantern #3

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Doug Mahnke

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

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

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

I, Vampire #1

Writer: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Artist: Andrea Sorrentino

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

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

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

Wonder Woman #3

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Cliff Chiang

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

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

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

Red Hood and the Outlaws #3

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Artist: Kenneth Rocafort

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

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

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

Freebies & Previews

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

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

From July 2002:

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

From March 1998:

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

From November 2003:

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

From November 2002:

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

From 1988:

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

From October 2006:

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

The biggest story of Barry Allen's life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read The Trial as a Flashpoint!


Thursday, November 17, 2011

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

From October 1999.

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

From July 2002.

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

From August 1992.

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

From February 1988.

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

From May 1986.

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

From August 2001.

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Opening the Black Casebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Quarter Bin #21 "Chronos, Hourman, and Enginehead"

This edition we’ll be discussing a few deliberate back issue discoveries, from series I only wish I’d read regularly, but absolutely do not deserve to be forgotten.

From February 1999.

Almost like James Robinson’s STARMAN, this was a series that took a completely different look at an established property. Chronos was originally a villain, but in this incarnation a time-traveling hero with his own complex mythology, which this particular issue, the final of the series, amply demonstrates. Writer John Francis Moore and artist Paul Guinan put together a comic that could have easily been a part of the Vertigo line in the modern era, but at the time was included in the regular DC universe, a mistake for a series that seemed to flaunt expectations and instead opt for style and substance. It would make a handsome addition to anyone’s trade paperback collection, if it were ever collected. Instead it remains a gem waiting to be discovered.

From March 2001.

Tom Peyer and Rags Morales were charged with another book that would have perfectly suited the tastes of STARMAN readers; I have the feeling that it didn’t because it featured a more traditional take on superheroes than Jack Knight was ever interesting in fulfilling. The Hourman featured in this issue is the human Rex Tyler, the traditional representation, but the one of the series was the short-lived robotic replacement from Grant Morrison’s DC ONE MILLION, who co-starred in JSA before its relaunch. This is one issue removed from the conclusion of the series, which the creators are careful to say in the letters column as being natural rather than strictly sales-mandated. Like CHRONOS, HOURMAN would make a fantastic series of trade collections if demand were strong enough to warrant it, but can instead remain a worthy find in the back issue bins.

From October 2004.

Joe Kelly and Ted McKeever deliver one of the stronger mainstream superhero comics, which would probably suit the modern Image line far better than it could possibly ever have the audience it did have at the time. Six issues, possibly always intended to be a mini-series, and that was it, but ENGINEHEAD was just one of those books I knew as soon as I heard about it was worth checking out, and this was from just about the time I was starting to get back into comics, so it’s remarkable that I even heard about this one, and probably the only reason I ever heard about it. Otherwise, it’s a lost peculiarity at worst, and another buried treasure of the back issue bin at best.

DC has regularly attempted launches for unusual characters, new versions of old characters, and most of them will never have a shot at longevity. YOUNG HEROES IN LOVE is another one of these books, and there are so many out there. I don’t mean to suggest, as many commentators do, that these fringe titles are better than their mainstream counterparts, but that they’re worth supporting, even well after they’ve gone out of print. As far as comic books go, it’s almost more interesting that way.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Game of Dreams

Beyond a doubt one of the most famous and critically-acclaimed comic books of the past twenty years, Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN helped usher the Vertigo revolution and remains one of the most visible works of the medium.

Neil Gaiman himself has become a successful and popular novelist since the conclusion of SANDMAN in 1996, writing such acclaimed books as AMERICAN GODS, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, and NEVERMORE. I’ve read AMERICAN GODS as well as its sequel, ANANSI BOYS, plus his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, GOOD OMENS and short story collection FRAGILE THINGS, so I consider myself a fan of his work, but have never read SANDMAN the whole way through. When the series began in 1988, I was very far from being a member of the target audience (not the least because I was eight and wouldn’t become an actual comics reader for about five years). Even when I did start reading comics, SANDMAN was so far advanced, it didn’t seem like a smart thing to try and jump in, and not just because I read mostly superhero stories at that point, and the longer I didn’t read it, the easier it became not to.

As the years progressed, I couldn’t help but hear the continuous stream of accolades directed toward SANDMAN, especially as Gaiman’s reputation as a novelist expanded. I read the odd back issue I managed to come across without directly seeking them out, caught a reprint of the first issue, became suitably impressed, but still, there was a lot to this series, seventy-five issues and ten trade collections, all of which would have been easier to follow had I started in 1988 or been an eager collector of trade collections (the former of which we’ve already established, and the latter something I’ve been working on for a long time); so for the longest time I maintained my marginal experience of SANDMAN, despite a growing interest in its creator.

Stands to reason that I’ve since bought a trade, being the first volume, PRELUDES & NOCTURNES and gotten around to reading it. The Neil Gaiman I know from the books I’ve read is heavily interested in mythology, though not necessarily from a traditional approach. AMERICAN GODS, after all, deals with immigrants mistakenly bringing their old religions with them, sort of spiritual baggage that causes a link for these gods in unfamiliar and unappreciative territory (think how we view Greek gods as more narrative than spiritual entities; actually think that and read GODS BEHAVING BADLY, which is a fine little book from Marie Phillips which is being made into a film).

I knew from my experience with the first issue of SANDMAN that Morpheus begins his journey after being trapped in the world of man, with unexpected consequences for his captors and the greater world around them. The rest of PRELUDES & NOCTURNES, the first eight issues, originally published between 1988 and 1989, describes his escape and reclamation of the things that were stolen from him, the totems and tools he needs to perform his job as representative of Dream from a collective known as the Endless that oversees all human affairs.

Since I had no real experience with the series, I didn’t know what to expect, the tone of it, except my prior experiences with Gaiman in other stories. I didn’t quite expect a horror series, and possibly it’s not very reflective of the series as a whole, given the comments from Gaiman and editor Karen Berger included in the volume, but clearly the initial style was hugely influenced by the horror comics of decades past. Possibly as a tenuous link to its origins within the greater DC universe, the first batch of issues draws heavily from established continuity, whether Doctor Destiny, whose criminal career is revealed to have a debt from the entrapment of Morpheus, or the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds (who would gain his own Vertigo series, SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE, possibly as a direct result of Gaiman’s SANDMAN). Even Martian Manhunter makes an appearance, briefly.

By the time perky Goth chick Death appears in the eighth issue, the horror stylings and pace have slowed, and Gaiman finally starts to settle in to an examination of his central character’s possibilities, and not strictly his particulars. Needless to say, that was probably for the best, and helped SANDMAN attain a kind of timeless, expansive quality.

The first volume is worth a look. I have a feeling that the other nine are more involving. I’ll get around to them eventually.