Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 QB50

This year’s edition of my annual countdown of comic book favorites is slightly different in that the selection was notably compromised throughout the year. For the first time since the list began in 2006 I did not make regular trips to a store or have shipments delivered to my home during the calendar year, so that everything that appears this time is something I was either lucky enough to catch or tried to keep track of, and by necessity the selection was not what it once was, so that a book I desperately wish I could include (Oni’s consistently great WASTELAND, which shipped two issues in 2011), for instance, won’t be present. I will further elaborate in the entries below.

1. RASL (Cartoon)
Jeff Smith managed to release three issues (#s 10-12) this year, during which lead character Robbie dealt with personal matters and the recurring narrative of Nikola Tesla’s incredible career was once again revisited. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I haven’t been the greatest supporter of this book in the QB50 (it ranked at 50th its debut year, but moved to 10th and then 4th last year), especially since the greater comics community has given Smith’s new project (after his seminal BONE) a tepid response at best. His vision of parallel realities comes at an interesting time, considering that the TV show FRINGE started making it a focus in the second season, yet RASL stands apart for its incredibly stark, almost impressionistic approach, which attempts to drive home how desperate and yet determined Robbie is, which has consistently been contrasted with the tough breaks a genius like Tesla was forced to endure. I’ve got a feeling the complete story of this series will receive a great deal more interest than its episodic releases have.

Grant Morrison’s latest Dark Knight saga, picking up threads of a giant already encompassing “R.I.P.,” THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE, and various other stories, had only began as 2010 came to a close, landing it 22nd on last year’s list, but there were six individual issues and then just recently the LEVIATHAN STRIKES one-shot that collected the intended final issues of the initial run for this series, which will bring Morrison’s vision to a close. The thing that’s better than any of that is that these are some of the most fun superhero stories anyone’s told in years, which you could easily enjoy without knowing or caring about the bigger picture, and that’s exactly what I liked so much and wanted to follow throughout the early months of the year, the first ongoing series I tried to keep track of after abandoning regular reading in January for financial reasons. That’s how I knew I was really hooked, and that’s what you look for when determining what your favorites really are.

DC’s big event of the summer that led to the much ballyhooed “New 52” relaunch was also possibly the best story to date from Geoff Johns, focusing on his vision of a Barry Allen who lost his mother at an early age and never really got over it, the worst part of his ongoing war with archnemesis Eobard Thawne, which led to The Flash ending up in an alternate reality where just about everything had gone terribly wrong, whether it was Wonder Woman and Aquaman going to war against each other or Superman being held captive by a secret government program or Thomas Wayne becoming Batman because it was his son who was murdered (and just why is it that few creators have ever considered the death of a child to be enough to create a superhero, anyway?), among many other changes.

Johns, it seems, was only getting warmed up, because he also conceived the flagship of the relaunch, another reboot of the seminal superhero team that saw it coming together for the first time, only instead of everyone being a big happy family from the beginning everyone is getting to know each other for the first time, allowing Johns and Jim Lee to present iconic characters in new and striking ways, from Batman and Green Lantern to Superman and Wonder Woman arriving on the scene, and a new version of Cyborg’s origin. This is one of the best ongoing superhero titles ever.

The quality of an ongoing series can fluctuate greatly, of course, depending on the creative team. Geoff Johns on ACTION COMICS led it to 3rd in 2007, 2nd in 2008, before he left and the title slipped to 46th in 2009 and 34th in 2010. Paul Cornell had started his run by the end of last year, and the quality began to shoot all the way back up, and so as he finished up his grand Lex Luthor story in the landmark and all-around exceptional (including various backup features from other creators) #900 (best single issue of the year), I was already set to rank the series near the top, even if I didn’t read too many issues, and then the relaunch took place and Grant Morrison took the reigns, presenting an entirely new vision of the Man of Steel that returns him to his iconic roots as few writers (except for Morrison himself, and of course Johns) have been able to do in recent years, certainly since the turn of the millennium. If Superman isn’t must-read, there’s a problem. Fortunately, that’s not a problem anymore.

Geoff Johns again, although I confess to having read only two issues of the book pre-relaunch this year (#s 66-67), which came at the end of the “War of the Green Lanterns,” which seemed a little like a blow-off quasi-event even before I knew that there was indeed something else to move onto. Yet Johns was one of the few writers to have the chance to continue writing an uninterrupted story in the fall, since he’d just given Sinestro one of the more improbable redemptive strokes in comics lore, returning a GL ring to his finger for the first time (excluding “Emerald Twilight”) in decades. While I’ve long been a fan of Johns’ Green Lantern work, I haven’t always ranked it very high (19th in 2007, 15th in 2008 and 2009, and then 5th last year). This is probably a career high for material in the actual GREEN LANTERN title, now that he’s concentrating on individual characters again, specifically Sinestro and Hal Jordan.

This was a graphic novel that creator Jonathan Case released this year, a wonderful, monster-meets-Shakespeare tale, wonderfully literate and easily one of the more imaginative stories I had the privilege to read, which I’ve since seen in Barnes & Noble, and that may be testament enough to its broad appeal.

I managed to read only two issues of Mike Costa and Antonio Fuso’s masterful comics this year, which began (3rd in 2009 and 2010) as a mini-series support book to IDW’s big G.I. Joe launch, and this year finally gained enough moment to drive the entire franchise, leading to “Cobra Civil War.” Thankfully I was able to catch G.I. JOE: COBRA #12, the issue where Cobra Commander is assassinated, but only #4 of COBRA, the relaunch that finally saw fit to eliminate the good guys from the title. I honestly don’t know why so many critics have a hard time giving this book (by whatever name) its due, because very few creators have been able to do as convincing and piercing character work as Costa (who started these efforts with Christos Gage) and regular artist Fuso. My biggest regret of the year was not being able to read every issue of this continuing saga.

The final issue of Grant Morrison’s minimalist, surreal saga of the hypoglycemic youth who really just needed a sip of soda to overcome his many troubles, or maybe just a reunion with his dad, was finally released, and it was worth the wait. This is another one of those comics that may read better as a whole than in its original installments, and may prove to be one of Morrison’s definitive works, similar to WE3, where the frenetic and eclectic approach seen in most of his other works is replaced for a more user-friendly result.

Ranked 32nd last year, this is the unappreciated follow-up to the 2005 breakout YOUNG AVENGERS from Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, as well as unofficial (?) sequel to HOUSE OF M, which finally answers the question, Whatever Happened to the Scarlet Witch? When I finally got around to discovering it for myself, Heinberg’s Avengers was easily my favorite, most lucid Marvel comic book, a series that wasn’t afraid to let its characters loose, tell a meaningful story, and that’s exactly what CHILDREN’S CRUSADE recaptures, and although the release schedule is a little loose (out of nine issues, begun in 2010, eight have been released, with five this year, and I got #s 4 and 8 in 2011), which I suppose reflects my current reading capabilities just fine. Now I only hope that I’ll be able to catch the final issue…

Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey previously collaborated on ACTION PHILOSOPHERS, this year finished up (with #s 5 & 6) this history of comic books, which became more interesting (not previously ranked) the less competition it had from actual comic books. Go figure.

Ranked 19th last year, but pulled up nicely with the handful of issues I was able to catch (later issues apparently sold really well and I was only belatedly able to catch the conclusion), with writers Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi finishing strong, although truthfully of all the things affected by the relaunch, I think this series was the hardest hit.

One of my early favorites in the year didn’t even rank in 2010, even though half the series was released by the time 2011 came around. For some reason my appreciation for Paul Cornell really shot up once my comics reading slowed down. I caught #4 on release, but had to wait until the trade collection to finish the rest of the story, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is exactly what I like about DC, that it can have an incredible variety of storytelling without trying very hard, even with characters some might have been tempted to take too seriously considering their connection to Grant Morrison’s big new Batman concept. Cornell simply had some fun with a very British perspective on superheroes, and it was some of the most refreshing material I’ve read.

I did a poor job of actually reading a Flash ongoing series, in either iteration, this year, catching #s 9 & 12 of the Geoff Johns book that ran into FLASHPOINT and then only the first issue of the New 52 version spearheaded by fast-rising talent Francis Manapul. I don’t know, it seems like every time Johns writes a Flash series, it takes me a while to actually appreciate it, even though he clearly had a big idea for Barry Allen and chose to spend his most recent experience writing the character solo preparing him for his biggest story, which is certainly not a bad thing, and allowed him to then continue concentrating on Green Lantern and some new projects. Manapul is at this point a far more interesting artist than he is a writer, and I have tended to prefer the writing to the art, no matter how good it is, in a Flash series. Maybe that’ll change in 2012. Who knows? Johns previously reached 30th on this series in 2010, but nailed the 2nd spot with his combination of THE FLASH: REBIRTH and BLACKEST NIGHT: THE FLASH in 2009.

15. ATOMIC ROBO (Red 5)
Another big loser in my reduced capacity was Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener’s fantastic robot monster fighter, who like Jeff Smith’s RASL also has a connection to Nikola Tesla (by cosmic coincidence). I was only able to catch their annual Free Comic Book Day appearance, which I guess was enough. I keep hoping that Robo will catch on in at least cult-sized way, because I think he’s at least good enough to become the next Hellboy. It doesn’t help that he’s Red 5’s only significant property. Previously ranked 20th in 2009 and 33rd in 2010.

16. MYSTIC (Marvel)
One of the CrossGen relaunches under the Marvel banner, my main interest was writer G. Willow Wilson, who wrote the two-time 1st-ranked AIR (2009 and 2010), cancelled well before its time. MYSTIC is a story about two friends who become separated by opposing fortune in a community that approaches magic in a very OWS kind of way, and is a very fun read.

Of all the launches in the New 52, this was the one I was most nervous about, considering Dick Grayson’s sketchy publishing history in a Nightwing book for the past five years, but I was pleased to discover that Kyle Higgins and Eddy Barrows have probably come up with the best material since Chuck Dixon and Devin Grayson (with Marv Wolfman coming in third and then maybe Peter Tomasi, the last writer in the previous series). I will be keeping my eye out for this one no matter if I’m reading or “reading” comics.

When everyone was going gaga over MOUSE GUARD, I had to scratch my head, because I knew there had to be something better than that, and lo, there came MICE TEMPLAR, which definitely was. Previously ranked at 29th in 2007, 36th in 2008, 14th in 2009, and 35th in 2010, Brian J.L. Glass has ably taken the reigns of his co-creation with Michael Avon Oeming, weaving a modern fantasy epic that’s as distinctive as the material it takes as inspiration is impressive, some of the most well-known narratives in literary history (you can read about that sort of thing in the back of every issue thanks to Jeff Turnham). The sole issue I read this year, #6, was easily enough to remind me just how awesome this work has become.

Eric Shanower and Skottie Young continue to provide the greatest service to modern readers in comics today by adapting the virtually forgotten original Oz tales from creator L. Frank Baum, and demonstrating just how ridiculously creative he really was, like the Tim Burton of his day (who better to make a new Oz film, right?), and though I read a combined two issues from the two mini-series published during the year, it was enough to keep the spirit alive for me. I’ve previously ranked their efforts at 33rd in 2009 and 24th in 2010.

Another big victim of my 2011 reading capacity was James Robinson’s much-anticipated follow-up to STARMAN, which has apparently been getting terrible readership overall, which is itself terrible, because even just from the first issue, I could tell he was bringing his A-game, something he hasn’t done since JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRY FOR JUSTICE (which ranked 5th in 2009). Maybe DC erred by launching this beauty only a month after the big New 52 initiative, but for some readers, this was probably more anticipated.

21. STEEL (DC)
A one-shot released early in the year, written by Steve Lyons, this was ostensibly the opening salvo of the big Doomsday crossover, but was far better read as a refresher course on everything that made John Henry Irons special in the first place, something that’d been overlooked for more than a decade, and thankfully not after Grant Morrison’s new ACTION COMICS. Deserves to be remembered as such.

I wish I’d known that Jonathan Hickman really would be firing on all cylinders by #600, because I probably would have made a greater effort to read more of it (and maybe FF), given that he seems to have approached writing the series less like a comic book and more like a TV show. Any idiot could (and many did) have guessed that Johnny Storm didn’t necessarily die after the events of the much-hyped #587, but it took a lot of guts to actually write a lot about what actually happened to him upon his actual return. I was guilty of being a little prejudice against Hickman’s ambitions. It’s definitely something to consider when looking at 2012.

I guess not everyone is as crazy for the classic SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL creative team of Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove, but for me, their reunion was easily the highlight of DC’s series of one-shots celebrating past eras. I loved most of 1990s Superman, but they were always some of my favorites, and their presence has been sorely missed.

Most people are perfectly willing to associate Grant Morrison with the best Buddy Baker material, and with good reason. It’s enough to say that Jeff Lemire is finally giving Morrison a run for his money.

A lot of people were hoping that BRIGHTEST DAY was a preview of sorts for some other franchises Geoff Johns could dig into, and he fulfilled some of that promise by tackling Aquaman in the New 52. Another series to keep an eye on in the coming year.

J. Michael Straczynski’s “Odyssey,” like his Superman story “Grounded,” ended up becoming a casualty to other commitments, and Phil Hester did his best to salvage it early in the year, and I think he was off to a good start, but I also didn’t have a problem abandoning it when I had to abandon a lot of stuff, not because of Hester (who I wish could enjoy far greater success than he does), but because I think Joe didn’t really consider enough material for the length of story he’d planned. Thankfully, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang started fresh with the relaunch, and can potentially have the best run Wonder Woman has ever seen on their hands. Definitely a book to reckon with in 2012.

Another returning pair that I was delighted to revisit was Ron Marz and Darryl Banks, who handled with a considerable amount of flare the debut of Kyle Rayner all those years ago, and so all those little touches that were signatures of their run were real fun to see again. The reprint at the back of the issue, surprisingly, was less enjoyable, now feeling considerably dated (at least in the unflattering style of swimwear some artists seem to favor, like Banks and Dan Jurgens).

A mini-series that run with an intriguing mash-up last seen in NIGHTWING: YEAR ONE, this was a definite perk of FLASHPOINT, exploring odd bit of continuity that could easily have supported itself in an Elseworlds-style book (because that’s basically what the whole event was about, with fairly loose interconnection). J.T. Krul is easily one of the DC writers who received a notable downgrade in his stature after the big relaunch, which was a shame.

Another perk of FLASHPOINT is that it served as an unofficial tie-in to the Green Lantern movie also released over the summer, and this mini-series written by Adam Schlagman clearly had the pilot glimpsed in the movie on its mind, a what-if scenario that proved Hal would be a hero with or without the ring.

This is a series that has ranked consistently in the past, from 23rd in 2007 to 40th in 2008, 35th in 2009, and finally 21st in 2010, so always somewhere around the middle of the pack. There have certainly been moments I really enjoyed in the title, and Tony Bedard’s “Weaponer” arc certainly ranks among them. I made it a point to sample each of the Green Lantern titles in the relaunch, but I’m not sure I found any of them as essential as Geoff Johns’ work in the flagship.

Geoff Johns was one of the hands involved in this particular movie prequel, which reads like an alternate version of what was seen on the big screen. In case you hadn’t guessed, I was a big fan of the movie.

This was a title I was excited about when I first read about the series involved in the New 52 relaunch, and the one issue I sampled demonstrated that Judd Winick and certainly artist Ben Oliver probably justified my faith in this spin-off from the Batman, Incorporated concept.

Because hey, who’s really going to argue about new material from the team of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire?

34. SPIDER-GIRL (Marvel)
The one issue (#4) I read featured “Kraven’s Next Hunt,” a spin-off from the incredible “Grim Hunt” saga that helped launch AMAZING SPIDER-MAN to 17th last year, and that was enough to land the whole series on this list.

IDW in general has done a really good job with its Star Trek comics (hitting 26th and 31st for various projects in 2009), and this new ongoing series seeks to reinterpret the original TV series through the lens of the J.J. Abrams reboot, which at worst is incredibly bold and certainly another book to keep an eye on.

36. SUPREME POWER (Marvel)
When I heard this dude named Kyle Higgins was being entrusted with Dick Grayson in the New 52, I became a little nervous, and started sampling the projects he was releasing in 2011, which included this latest iteration of the Marvel interpretation of the Justice League. Suffice to say, I liked what I saw.

The smartest thing Brian Michael Bendis ever did was introduce a new Spider-Man. It was the thing he absolutely needed to do after establishing that new record with Mark Bagley in the original Ultimate comics. This may be his superhero legacy.

38. VENGEANCE (Marvel)
For some reason, Marvel started releasing a bunch of off-beat mini-series that answered to nothing but themselves, and this Joe Casey ditty was among them. I’m still not sure I entirely understood what I saw, but I liked it.

It was Geoff Johns who received all the benefits of the story, but it was Tony Bedard who officially launched Sinestro into his bold new era in this two-volume epilogue to the crossover. Y’know, strictly speaking for the record.

40. AVENGERS 1959 (Marvel)
Howard Chaykin is an iconic creator I will try my best to cherish for as long as he continues producing new material. This is his offbeat look at a prior incarnation of the Marvel superteam, which includes the eclectic mix of Nick Fury, Kraven, Sabretooth, and Namora.

Fudging just a tiny bit, including issues #15 & 16, one of which was actually released in 2010, rounding out David Hine’s strongest stories with Michael Lane (“Killer of Saints” got him 14th last year).

This entry is understood to represent material created by Tony Daniel, and so straddles pre- and post-New 52 alignments. Most readers seem to favor Scott Snyder these days, and so the natural order would seem to be the reverse of what I’ve detailed here, but Daniel continues to be my man for alternate Batman tales (his work previously reached 45th in both 2009 and 2010). He seems to have the most fun out of creators not named Grant Morrison (possibly because they worked together during “R.I.P.”), so it’s an easy call for me.

Grant Morrison wasn’t solely responsible for last year’s rank of 18th (but he was for 2009’s 8th), but combinations of Paul Cornell & Scott McDaniel, Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleason, and Judd Winick & Jason Todd helped to compensate for his complete absence in 2011. I haven’t read the book since the relaunch, though I remain pleased that Tomasi and Gleason (who were so good together in GREEN LANTERN CORPS and BRIGHTEST DAY) were tapped as creators, both before and after.

No fictional city in comics has received as much attention as Gotham, and it was again the subject of intriguing material from emerging superstars Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins. I have a feeling that this story would have been more significant had it been told in an ongoing series, even the cancelled STREETS OF GOTHAM (would have been appropriate, anyway).

45. CHARMED (Zenescope)
My sister is a big fan of the late WB series, and so through her I’ve maintained a link to the Paul Ruditis comic launched last year. It’s not bad, really.

I’ve always wondered why DC hasn’t found more excuses to tell stories revolving around one of the most famous characters in Green Lantern lore, the one who happened to famously die in his first appearance. Again, thanks to the movie released this summer, the company had excuse enough to populate FLASHPOINT with scenarios that would get around the awkward fact that technically speaking, Abin Sur is dead. In the altered reality of FLASHPOINT, he’s still Green Lantern. Then White Lantern!

Mike Carlin wrote this one-shot that introduced a new character into DC lore, one who will hopefully pop up again later!

Before Francis Manapul there was Scott Kolins, another Geoff Johns collaborator who began as an artist and then branched out as a writer. I thought out of all the FLASHPOINT spin-offs, this would have a good chance of standing out, and at least for me, I wasn’t wrong. This one will probably be one of the more fun ones to read on its own in a few years.

I’m cheating again, because the issues I’m referring to happen to straddle 2010 and 2011, specifically #s 7 & 8, featuring J.T. Krul and Mike Mayhew’s visionary Oliver Queen-as-Robin-Hood (more literally than ever before!) work, in the mystical forest where he teams up with Galahad, a character I thought had great potential. Hopefully at some point they can reunite, Krul and Mayhew, I mean!

See above for the general prelude, but I was also pleased to find Michael Green (one of the writers involved in the movie’s screenplay, along with Marc Guggenheim, whose RESURRECTION I sorely missed during the year, and a few others) and Patrick Gleason involved in this one.


Complete listing of QB editions (these links are almost uniformly bad at this point, except for the last two):


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Action Comics #4

writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Rags Morales

What reads like a perfection of comics various creators basically botched very recently (except Geoff Johns in Superman: Secret Origin), Morrison continues to spin Superman's earliest adventures in Metropolis in an entirely new and interesting light by reteaming Lex Luthor with Brainiac, while also making Metallo interesting again (as an unwitting dupe of Brainiac's invasion force) and reintroducing Steel as a hero who can ably represent himself (also in a complementary backup feature by Sholly Fisch), especially in an era that seems to have been consumed by technology that only pretends to have useful functions.

Justice League #3

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Jim Lee

I'm astounded that a Justice League book can be this good. I think I've said that a number of different ways already, calling it a monthly event book, for instance, and if that's still the best way to say it, then that'll work, too. This is better than Grant Morrison's widescreen JLA, better than Brad Meltzer's, so much more confident in the exploration not only of the team as it comes together, but how the individual members represent themselves. Too easily and too often team books concentrate on trite dialogue that gives token presence to individual members when they're really just homogenizing everyone into some adventure that's supposed to be big enough for the reader to overlook this fact. The best team books overcome this basic deficiency by actually delivering on big adventure, or instead relying on the relationship game (which Young Heroes in Love parodied). Johns has been doing so many event books recently that he's perfected the formula of writing various characters with unique perspectives while simultaneously building a bigger story around them. This issue we finally meet Wonder Woman, and the approach here is so fresh, so vibrant, it's an embarrassment to every other writer who has failed to capture that same spirit through the years, instead counting on reader familiarity that has actually robbed the character of her best qualities. The good thing is that Brian Azzarello seems perfectly capable of matching that tone in the Wonder Woman ongoing. This is the best kind of flagship title, because it absolutely deserves that distinction.

Nightwing #3

writer: Kyle Higgins
artist: Eddy Barrows

Owing to the fact that I QUIT READING COMICS this year and it initially proved difficult to find issues of this particular New 52 launch, I was almost content not to read the new Nightwing book, which is basically heresy for me, since Dick Grayson has been one of my favorite comic book characters for as long as I've cared about superheroes. The previous Nightwing series took a turn for the eclectic once Devin Grayson was booted from the book, revolving through a number of writers who rebooted Dick's context so many times that it was difficult for any of them to truly get a handle on him, even Marv Wolfman, who came closest to establishing a feel that felt natural and not just distinct from what had previously been done. Higgins, as it turns out, matches what Wolfman attempted to do very nicely. I'd heard that Haly's Circus was going to be involved, but actually reading it is much like what readers were saying about Scott Snyder's Detective Comics (which was only partially accurate), getting into Dick's past in a real and meaningful way. Chuck Dixon originally set out to create a whole new world for Dick to explore, but that had been played out by the time Devin Grayson departed, and no one was able or willing to return to that world, so it's appropriate and gratifying that someone has finally and confidently begun exploring Dick's prior existence, the one Bruce Wayne basically interrupted (with the best intentions). I was one of those fans who loved that Dick had seemingly permanently gained the mantle of Batman, and so was distressed that the New 52 was booting him back into his loner's position, scared that he'd spin back into random and mostly meaningless adventures that would once again cause Dan DiDio to consider him expendable...I'm glad to report that this will not be the case, at least for the foreseeable future. This may be the best Dick Grayson in years.

The Amazing Spider-Man #673

writer: Dan Slott
artist: Stefano Caselli

I still want to go on record as stating that Slott is easily the best option to go with as a successor to the team that wrote Brand New Day for a couple of years, as he's exceedingly imaginative, and that's important when you're writing a character with as big an ADHD problem and complete lack of introspection as the legendary Spider-Man, and so I initially welcomed Big Time with open arms. Perhaps my biggest problem is that I had to par down my comics reading around that same time (before QUITTING COMICS ALTOGETHER this year), and so never really got into the feel of what he intended to do past giving Peter a job that actually made sense. This is the first regular issue of the comic that I've read in 2011 (aside from a Free Comic Book Day edition). It happens to follow Spidey's first big crossover event (ever?), Spider-Island, and is in fact the epilogue. Everyone in New York (or at least the part that was affected) is transitioning back to their normal lives, and that partially involves setting up the new Scarlet Spider, and reflects on the continuing efforts to keep Peter and MJ apart for reasons that no longer seem natural.

X-Club #1 (of 5)

writer: Simon Spurrier
artist: Paul Davidson

I remember the X-books playing around with the science-based X-Club a few years back (since I don't read them regularly, that's as much as I know without research), so I was excited when I saw this book announced, and then just as chuffed when I saw it at Barnes & Noble...The problem is that Spurrier seems to have decided that the best approach was to rip-off Atomic Robo. This would have worked better had Brian Clevinger actually been the writer (Clevinger writes the exceedingly clever Atomic Robo comics that no one reads for Red 5 and has actually written for Marvel, too), but instead Spurrier awkwardly writes the supposed geniuses of the X-Club without an ounce of integrity and instead with a parody of the usual posturing the worst comic book writers tend toward...Anyhoo, bottom line, huge disappointment, salvageable only by recognizing what it at least tried to be.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tales of the Philosophy Corps

I bought GREEN LANTERN AND PHILOSOPHY on May 21st. I know this because I kept the receipt as a bookmark. I started reading it that evening, and kept it around as light reading material for the remainder of the year. “Light reading” indeed; as the title suggests, this one’s got some heavy thinking in mind. Part of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series edited by William Irwin, it was probably one of the more notable releases this year, timed to coincide with the movie that was supposed to explode the Green Lantern mythos into the mainstream consciousness.

That didn’t actually happen, and I can only imagine what anyone who didn’t realize that was supposed to happen must have thought if they happened upon this book. Maybe much the same as any of the others in the series, which mostly cover TV shows and superheroes with a prominent movie. For me, it was an awesome publishing event. Years ago I picked up a role-playing guide that taught me most of what I came to know about Green Lantern lore; this is like an updated version of that. Of course, it’s also about Green Lantern and philosophy.

A team of eighteen academics write a total of twenty articles (from “The Blackest Night for Aristotle’s Account of Emotions” to “Magic and Science in the Green Lantern Mythos: Clarke’s Law, the Starheart, and Emotional Energy”), comparing Green Lantern comics and how writers have presented emerald-colored heroics to historical thought about power from history’s greatest minds. Some of the articles delve pretty deeply into the comics; others use them as mere launching points for whatever they really wanted to talk about. The most astonishing thing is that there is fantastic amount of Green Lantern material covered, both famous and obscure, so that if you want to, you can read this book merely to gain greater insight into the franchise. I happen to not mind all the philosophizing, even if much of it isn’t very deep, and the quality of the essays can vary wildly, but I guess that’s to be expected from a group project.

Hal Jordan receives most of the attention, and his adventures from “Hard-Traveling Heroes” to JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRY FOR JUSTICE are covered, but a lot of the work Geoff Johns has been doing is also featured, making you appreciate all the more concepts like the emotional spectrum. None of this was authorized by DC Comics, but no one’s trying to redefine anything so much as think a little deeper. I got the feeling that Green Lantern was an ideal subject for this kind of project, considering the sheer breadth of the material, so it’s something of a shame that a movie had to be made for someone to authorize it.

Love that “No Evil Shall Escape This Book” is included as a kind of slogan.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quarter Bin #25 "Bane and Superman"

It’s kind of funny to be writing about Bane and Superman in one column (to be perfectly accurate, though, it’s because of the back issue bins at Escape Velocity in Colorado Springs and what I found on that particular day), since Bane was more or less created to be an evil version of Doc Savage, who is a precursor to Superman…

Anyway, let’s just dive in!

From January 1993:

This is the first appearance of that hulking figure Tom Hardy will be playing in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES next summer. I’m so glad that Hardy is playing him, and that it’s Christopher Nolan and his creative team conceiving this incarnation of Bane, since it seems just about no one since Bane’s earliest appearances has been able to figure out just what Bane is supposed to be. Simply put, Bane is Batman’s opposite number, someone who got an exceedingly bad break and chose to handle it by perfecting himself. Where Bruce Wayne became a vigilante who tried to correct injustice, Bane (no real name has ever been given to him in the comics) chose to exert his resulting might to control rather than react (an interesting distinction, especially for the purposes of Nolan’s vision, since Batman was last seen crossing that line). Batman’s parents were murdered as innocents, whereas Bane’s father was someone who’d eluded the law, forcing Bane’s mother and then Bane himself as a newborn to face justice in his place. Batman grew up knowing the world firsthand; Bane grew up in prison and learned everything in books. This origin issue explains all this (there’s a sequel from after the “Knightfall” saga and Bruce Wayne’s return that sees Bane rededicate himself to more noble causes), plus introduces his relationship to the Venom toxin that for so many creators after Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan became almost the complete story of his character, his obsession and dependency on a steroid that fueled not only his strength but apparently uncontrollable rage (as if he had become a human-sized Hulk), something that was really only a problem, in this stage of storytelling, when he faced Jean-Paul Valley’s armored version of Batman. Presented here, Venom is something that was added to him after he’d already perfected himself, and so it became just another weapon in his arsenal, not the sole means for his strength or even the method behind his menace. It was his mind, and a conscious decision to seek out the one man who might rival him, as he’d learned in prison (again, before the Venom), that motivated Bane to take on the challenge of Batman. Perhaps after next year, DC will once again take him seriously, rather than let him wallow in minor titles and in circumstances that aren’t befitting a character like…Bane.

From March 1993:

Following “Doomsday,” after the entire real world had become convinced of the tragedy of a legendary comic book character actually dying, DC had to be very careful about taking the aftermath seriously. There was the “World without a Superman” arc that looked at the effects on Lois Lane and the rest of Metropolis, as everyone braced for the vacuum caused by the death of the Man of Steel. LEGACY OF SUPERMAN came before the “Reign of the Supermen” arc that famously introduced four possible replacements or even reincarnations (who later became known as Superboy, Steel, Cyborg, and the Eradicator). Then-current and famous Superman creators looked back at other heroes, some of whom had been forgotten then, and some which actually remain forgotten today: Karl Kesel and Walter Simonson brought us to Project Cadmus (which later produced the clone who would become Superboy), where we met with the Guardian (Jim Harper), who met his genetically-engineered and only-theoretical replacement Auron; Roger Stern and Dennis Rodier brought back Thorn, a curious hero who didn’t even know, in her secret identity, that she participated in vigilante activity; Jerry Ordway and Dennis Janke handled Gangbuster, who was most recently seen in TRINITY; William Messner-Loebs and Curt Swan tinkered with Sinbad, someone I’d never heard of, and who was probably never seen again; and Dan Jurgens unsurprisingly featured Waverider and the Linear Men. Just imagine if the Superman books (which at that time included SUPERMAN, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, ACTION COMICS, and SUPERMAN: MAN OF STEEL) had played with these heroes for a year…

From January 2001:

If he were still writing for DC today, Jeph Loeb’s SUPERMAN would probably be collected today; instead readers might be forgiven to believe Loeb didn’t write the Man of Steel (after FOR ALL SEASONS, that is) until SUPERMAN/BATMAN. Then again, readers might still not appreciate it, since the general opinion for some reasons believes that Loeb isn’t much of a writer, and that’s a terrible shame, since he has a distinctive style that puts a deliberate focus on the inner life of the characters he writes. Frequent collaborator Ed McGuinness supplies some of the art in this issue, which features Jimmy Olsen, Bizarro, and the run-up to “President Luthor” (more on that in a moment), and so on the surface doesn’t feature a lot of introspective material. Except Loeb is one of the masters of captions, an art I hope isn’t as endangered as it currently seems.

From March 2001:

Ah! And so we see that DC actually allowed Lex Luthor to become president! Perhaps one of the last great developments from the momentum the 1990s Superman creative teams produced, Luthor had been through so many epiphanies that he went from the traditional foe who had actually fatally poisoned himself with Kryptonite to a methodical and manipulative genius who still ended up getting his way, first by becoming his own son and then returning to reclaim his empire and solidifying his new power by forming an alliance with the Contessa, someone who literally took the fall for him, so that he could then take his false image as a legitimate businessman and benefactor to humanity to the next level, once he’d seen that Superman was still more beloved than he was. So he became President. This special outlines the whole process, as only the SECRET FILES specials could. But that was a different time. Today we once again enjoy a Luthor more closely tied to his origins (best illustrated by Paul Cornell, Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns), since really, who would buy that Lex could ever become President? Naturally, a scandal brought him down, eventually.

From January 2002:

After “Our Worlds at War,” what was at that time the biggest event of the previous decade, Superman famously modified his costume to replace the yellow in the S-shield with black, a symbolic gesture to represent the fact that even he recognized that the world was no longer a simple place. (It remains a great irony that this transformation occurred at the same time as 9/11.) Jeph Loeb is still writing our Man of Steel, this time with art from Ian Churchill; the story features a therapy session for Superman while he otherwise battles that era’s incarnation of General Zod, the continuing effects of “OWAW,” and a separation from Lois. At that time, DC was doing just about everything it could think of to try and make Superman relevant to readers again (which eventually led to Manchester Black), without resorting to a reboot. Turns out the reboot would have been easier, as long as everyone else joined in (*cough* “New 52”).

As a collection these issues represent what different creators and eras can have on characters, their presentation and potential, and still only covers about a decade. That’s one of the true virtues of comic books. Some fans may bitch and moan about it, but really, what other medium can so consistently allow such continual reinvention on so broad a spectrum with the same basic creations?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Comic Book Comics #6

written by Fred Van Lente
art by Ryan Dunlavey

The last issue in the comic book series about comic books, their history and important trends, from one of my favorite creators, Fred Van Lente, who previously collaborated with Dunlavey on Action Philosophers. Here the duo try to peer into the future, looking at the art of the graphic novel, its surprising origins, as well as manga, and just why you buy comics the way you do, in specialty stores, rather than the convenience shops of years past. The thing that was great about this series was that it was remarkably insightful, compiling an incredible amount of information into an entertaining narrative that never felt like an academic exercise. Here's hoping Van Lente and Dunlavey collaborate again soon!

Justice League #2

written by Geoff Johns
art by Jim Lee

The flagship of the "New 52" deserves that distinction in that it's like an event book as a regular series. In this issue, Green Lantern and Batman, whose close encounter began the series, now contend with Superman, who in the DCnU reckoning is almost a wild card for the first time, unpredictable. Here he's a being of immense power, whom Green Lantern is surprised to find capable of overcoming even the abilities of his ring. Batman, meanwhile, is just as formidable, thanks to his extraordinary mind. These are all strong-willed individuals, distrustful of each other. Yet they are destined to form one of the greatest alliances in comic book history. It's as if Johns is approaching the League the way Jeph Loeb famously did Superman and Batman alone last decade.

Lest you believe this is just about three particular heroes, bonus material helps introduce how this book will approach Wonder Woman, while Johns also continues introducing Cyborg, including a strong emphasis on his origins.

RASL #12

written and illustrated by Jeff Smith

Alongside Grant Morrison's Batman, Inc., his "New 52" Action Comics, and Geoff Johns' Green Lantern, this is the book I've continually felt compelled to read following the 2011 decision to give up reading new comics (for financial reasons).

I've been a fan of Smith since Bone, one of the great fantasy epics of our time, and so when RASL launched a few years ago, I thought it was a great idea to give Smith's new baby a try, and I was immediately struck by how different it was from Bone, not that the art was much different, but that the tone was so much more demanding. It hasn't always been easy to see just where Jeff was going with this one, why it should be worth reading individual issues, since he's taken a very deliberate pace in his storytelling this time around. It's a mystery series at heart, trying to figure out just why Rob is jumping between realities, why he's on the run, and what it has to do with Nikola Tesla.

The Tesla link, once it was revealed, once the series really started to explore it, became my favorite element. Tesla is one of the great scientific geniuses, but he's sunk into relative obscurity since his death, eclipsed by his rival, Thomas Edison, and certainly Einstein, even though it could be argued that he accomplished a lot more than either of them, and could've done so much more had he not run aground of resistance. This particular issue expands on his troubles, and actually helps to explain the benefit of an episodic approach, cliffhangers that make the reader ever more curious about where exactly everything's headed.

In a lot of way, RASL is very similar to Fringe, and that's something I didn't really think about until now. I believe that I will have further occasion to meditate on that connection in the future.

By the end of the month, you'll see where the series ranks on my annual QB50 ranking. But you can bet it'll be among my favorites, regardless of how many comics I've read in 2011.

Green Lantern: More Star Wars than Superhero

For a while, I kind of hoped that the fan community would help redeem Green Lantern. I thought it wasn't an unreasonable belief, since comic book fans have helped make the comic books themselves one of the most popular franchises in recent years, given the efforts of Geoff Johns as recently as Blackest Night, a cornerstone DC event.

Except comic book fans still flocked to Marvel films like X-Men: First Class and rejected Green Lantern as at best an irredeemable mess. I'm still surprised by this reaction.

I had dreamed about a Green Lantern film for more than a decade, envisioning how I myself would shape some of the defining stories ("Emerald Dawn," "Hard-Traveling Heroes," "Emerald Twilight") into a big screen epic, a trilogy that would take its place alongside Star Wars as a treasured experience. Fans in the 1990s had already begun to compare the two franchises, so it's not as if even now I'm proposing anything new.

The problem is that most fans today, as well as casual viewers, can only seem to think about Green Lantern as a superhero, when he's been demonstrated to be so much more, not the least by Geoff Johns, but throughout his publishing history. At best Spider-Man's "With great responsibility" line is the only true comparable superhero experience. Green Lantern is a space cop, not a superhero.

You might even think of him, of Hal Jordan, and the rest of the GL Corps, as an alternate band of Jedi knights.

Something George Lucas never got around to doing, even in his second trilogy, was exploring a Jedi who wasn't invested in some cosmic destiny. At worst, that's exactly what Hal Jordan represented, all the way back in Showcase #22, accepting the ring of the dying Abin Sur and being inducted into an intergalactic organization invested with patrolling the cosmos, one sector at a time, wielding an awesome ring capable of just about anything. On the surface, and especially on his home planet of Earth, Hal seemed to become just another superhero, except that his responsibilities often took him into space, facing threats that originated on other worlds, interacting not with other heroes but other members of the Corps.

Hal Jordan's secret origin as Green Lantern has nothing to do with some deep personal crisis or revelation, but rather his induction into something far greater than himself.

Just as Luke Skywalker stumbled into the heart of the fight between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire, something that until that point had been beyond the realm of his wildest dreams, Hal learns that until he received Abin Sur's ring, humans were hardly considered noteworthy.

Luke, of course, learns that he has a far greater role to play than he imagined when he discovers that he's the son of Darth Vader, one of the most feared individuals in the galaxy, which goes well beyond training to become a Jedi. In Green Lantern, Hal struggles to overcome his personal problems, let alone figuring out what it means to be a member of the Corps, while events greater than him gradually reveal his connection to the threat of Parallax, a being representative of the fear Hal has spent his life trying to figure out.

The difference of the approaches Star Wars and Green Lantern take produce markedly different results, but they're far more similar than is at first apparent. Star Wars is an adventure experience, first and foremost, whether you talk about the first or second trilogies. The first, the original three films, is a lot more gritty, while the second represents a more slick production sense, that attempts to immerse the viewer in a sense of the scale of events. Think of it this way: Luke, Han and Leia are always running away from something, whereas Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme are always running toward something. All the same, events play out in parallel ways, in a dawning awareness; a struggle to accept identity; and finally, fulfillment of destiny.

Green Lantern compresses these arcs into a single story, and so proceeds with breakneck speed to introduce characters and situations so that Hal's acceptance of not only his new role but of himself is intertwined with a foe (Hector Hammond) who represents a completely opposite trajectory, something Star Wars had to achieve over the course of six films (contrasting Luke with his father Anakin). Hal in essence becomes a Jedi who doesn't know the conflict between the two sides of the Force (but his theoretical pal Sinestro will), who is instead simply trying to find his way into the apparently natural order of things.

What results is a film that tries to be cosmic and human at the same time, doesn't really treat the superhero at the heart of it as a superhero, choosing to introduce the idea of the responsibility of the power ring as something that erases doubt and difference, obscures the line between good and evil, without stepping outside familiar territory, but rather embracing it.

The funny thing is, it's only confusing if you allow it to be, if you approach Green Lantern as a film about a superhero, rather than as an exploration of mankind approaching its potential, which just so happens to include aliens who would rather be our friends and companions than enemies. Even Star Wars used aliens that way, and that's what I thought would help viewers distinguish what the movie really was, versus inappropriate and misleading expectations that only obscured the worth of the actual product.

For me, Green Lantern was more expansive than I had thought it could be, and so was far more than a movie based on some of my favorite comics. Maybe it didn't hurt that I already liked the ideas, not so much that I was familiar with them but that I had already thought about them. It was easier for me to like the film because I was prepared, and since I already liked the kind of movie it ultimately proved to be. For that reason, I still hold out hope that others will eventually come to view it as the kind of success I found it to be.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Quarter Bin #24 "Aztek"

One of the more intriguing elements of Grant Morrison’s backstory is his involvement with the career of Mark Millar. Today it’s a moot subject, and there is no longer any kind of relationship, but as early as fifteen years ago, they were working under the same roof and in fact working very closely together, whether on THE FLASH or collaborating on an experimental superhero in the pages of AZTEK: THE ULTIMATE MAN.

Millar has become one of the cornerstone creators at Marvel while Morrison has been a DC man since departing NEW X-MEN (or, when Xorn was still known, and as an alternate version of Magneto). Millar’s best-known DC work is SUPERMAN: RED SUN, though he also wrote for Vertigo. Aside from Brian Michael Bendis, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-established “architect” at the House of Ideas. He is also responsible for WANTED and KICK-ASS, among other projects, and for a time represented the next generation of comic book visionaries, no doubt a prospect that appealed to him, since that’s a role Morrison held before him and retains to this day, long after days he was supposed to pass the baton to Millar.

Well, they’ll always have Aztek. A hero who later claimed his payoff in Morrison’s JLA storyline “World War Three,” the erstwhile Ultimate Man was an attempt to create a modern hero, one who was trained into the role and given a clear purpose. His series ran from 1996-97, a mere ten issues, victim to low readership, another new character who failed to stick (and has yet to be resurrected in the new millennium, much less the “New 52”). I’m afraid I’m a part of his misfortunes, since I read the first few issues, but for some reason abruptly stopped, even though I’d thoroughly enjoyed what I’d seen. I can’t account for that decision now, but as I’ve repeatedly stated in the Quarter Bin column, one of the great joys of being a comics reader is that the past is always a part of the present, back issues being an obsessive hobby that rivals new releases for the modern fan.

I was cataloguing my comics, actually, when I finally got around to prompting myself to read more AZTEK. DC released a trade collection of the series, but once again I had other priorities, even though I was happy to see that it had not been entirely forgotten. The actual impetus was the letters column of an issue I had gotten back in the day, referencing an appearance by the Joker, which was said to be definitive. Knowing as I knew at that point how important Grant Morrison writing the Joker actually is, I felt I had to read it for myself. I made a trip to Escape Velocity in Colorado Springs and found a pretty good selection of the series, and that’s where the following comes from:

From October 1996:

This issue is probably an important one for fans to have read at the time, since it illustrates perhaps better than preceding installments how much thought Morrison and Millar put into their concept, which embraced not only the central hero and the peculiar city of Vanity, but an idea of the hero-and-villain community that went well beyond convention. The thing I’d originally admired about AZTEK was that it felt like the future Mark Waid had envisioned in KINGDOM COME, where heroes become more violent and less calculating. That thought is expanded in this issue, as Morrison and Millar shape the backstory for the figure Aztek previously defeated, a crazy mix of hero and villain, where it’s revealed that he was once a very clear-cut, actually stereotypical hero with a partner, who had her share of tragedy even before Aztek appeared, and so her mourning process, which is in itself unique to AZTEK, becomes a further mark of distinction for the series, even before we’ve properly delved into the central character’s own particulars. In hindsight, the creators are attempting an incredibly ambitious thing here, all the more for starting with a totally new hero. That is recipe for disaster.

From November 1996:

Let’s skip this one, because even I thought it didn’t help the series find an audience, like it was Morrison and Millar trying a little too hard to drag Vertigo into DC proper.

From December 1996:

Here’s another key issue, since it expands on Aztek’s origins, by introducing an inadvertent rival in the Lizard King, a predecessor in the line of warriors developed by the Q Society who believes he can replace our hero as the Ultimate Man. What he fails to realize is that Aztek is the culmination of the project, and therefore the only one who can fit the bill (until we learn that, like Luke Skywalker, there is another, who later briefly appears in Morrison’s JLA). The whole concept of Aztek hinges on the legend of Quetzalcoatl, a name grade school scholars may recall from the annals of Spanish exploration in the New World, and is perhaps a little more elaborate, or outside the realm of typical comic book storytelling, so that Morrison himself later simplifies everything to “Lex Luthor” in JLA.

From January 1997:

Here at last in the Joker issue. I guess I was a little surprised that the story is actually pretty tame, more subdued, less madcap than I had been expecting, maybe not exactly what DC readers were getting at that point (perhaps appropriately enough, the character had been neutered since his “Death in the Family” heyday to a shadow of himself, a joke in “Knightfall”); I mean, it’s pretty lunatic, but not exactly the psychological portrait in ARKHAM ASYLUM (the first decade of the new millennium is responsible, we must then assume, for a lot more of what we think about the Joker than we might previously have expected). Batman, for the record, does make an appearance.

From May 1997:

The finale, featuring Amazo and his creator Professor Ivo, locked in a complicated dance, is basically Aztek’s induction into the Justice League, which was probably intended from the start, but is kind of a letdown for anyone who might have expected closure within the character’s own book, even if it came to a premature end. (The letters column features a particularly insightful rant about readers failing to live up to their end of the bargain that is perhaps more noteworthy than anything in the rest of AZTEK; if you’re interested to know what it says, consider that your personal incentive to track down some of these back issues.) Even in the age of the “New 52,” it’s hard to see DC rolling the dice with another series like this, which tries to reinvent just about everything about traditional superhero comics, and that’s something of a shame. The fact that Morrison went back to the drawing board, reinvested himself in some of the more basic tropes, and that Millar has been trying to cater directly to a moviegoer’s perspective, can’t be a coincidence (or maybe it is and I just like to read too much into things; for the record, it’s a fun hobby all in itself!), after an experiment like this, a kind of spectacular failure. They both came away from AZTEK with a distinct perspective of where to go next, should they ever try again. In a way, it’s not hard to see how they couldn’t work together again.

Quoting Poe

A lot of people don’t seem to believe that apparently disparate interests can co-exist, or can be adequately reconciled. There’s one stereotype, for instance, that readers of books can’t also be readers of comic books, or that if they somehow are, there are bound to be deficiencies in their critical thinking. Readers of comic books, for instance, probably need to rely on things like variations of ILLUSTRATED CLASSICS to appreciate the written word by itself, adaptations that translate known material to a form they can digest, that shares the same patterns.

All of this is to say, nah, I don’t believe that, not for one minute. Maybe I really am the rare readers who can appreciate Melville’s CONFIDENCE-MAN and, say, JOE PSYCHO & MOO-FROG, I don’t know. I only know that inspiration is inspiration, and sometimes, those lines can be blurred more than most people are apparently willing to admit.

NEVERMORE: A GRAPHIC ADAPTATION OF EDGAR ALLAN POE’S SHORT STORIES is a prime example. Poe is one of the giants of American literature, someone every school kid has some experience with, whether from “The Raven” or “The Tell-tale Heart,” both among the ten short stories, including a biography that highlights suitably unsettling aspects of his death, featured in this collection. A bevy of small-press creators come together to offer their interpretations of Poe’s works, some shifting the timeframes a little, but each of them remaining faithful to the original scripts, psychological tales that remain as compelling today as when they were originally published.

Perhaps the element that truly makes them pop is that the artwork is in black and white, a format that few fans seem willing to embrace (perhaps not so surprising, given that modern comics virtually pride themselves in the sophistication of their coloring).