Saturday, January 28, 2012

Vengeance #6 (of 6)

written by Joe Casey
art by Nick Dragotta

This was the conclusion of the series, and characteristically Casey plays fast and loose with events, maybe not really getting a sense of closure, and maybe that's because Marvel realized that they can probably keep this story going, sensing how special this experience really was, a wicked ride that takes a look at how things will be a few years in the future, when a new generation rises and tries to figure out what exactly all those familiar heroes you've followed have actually achieved in terms of the battle against evil. Only by using new characters could you explore this kind of question, and Casey does a fair bit of elaborating in this issue on his conclusions (at least so far!). As I've said before, this comic is like taking the superhero genre to the next chapter.

Nightwing #5

written by Kyle Higgins
art by Eddy Barrows

I still can't believe that Nightwing actually has a writer again who cares enough about the character to spend a lot of time on a story that takes its time to unfold and has a lot to do and say about Nightwing himself, something that hasn't really been done since Chuck Dixon and Devin Grayson. I can't repeat enough that Kyle Higgins has achieved that. This particular issue almost reads like an episode of Fringe (maybe that was intentional), with a freak of the week adding a new layer to Dick's renewed ties to Haly's Circus, and the many secrets he never realized existed behind its tents.

Green Lantern #5

written by Geoff Johns
art by Doug Mahnke

The improbable redemption of Sinestro continues this issue as he successfully convinces his bitter fellow Korogarans to trust him long enough so that he can clear his home planet of the scum that usurped his yellow-ringed corps. Neither his countrymen nor Hal Jordan are actually convinced that he's much better than the rogue Green Lantern who was rightly considered a villain for years, but that only makes things more interesting. A Sinestro who's allowed to be portrayed as a three-dimensional personality , who retains his backstory but can now operate once again as a hero in his own mind is so much more interesting than most characters in comics normally are. The story now shifts, at least apparently, to Hal's future with Carol, and whatever the Guardians are planning, which will probably lead into the next giant crossover event...

Action Comics #5

written by Grant Morrison
art by Andy Kubert

After the clashes with Metropolis personalities in the first few issues, Grant Morrison takes the Superman story back to the beginning, very cleverly, I might add, by including Brainiac in the origins, something only Morrison, it seems, has been able to consider (Kevin J. Anderson wrote a book that didn't consider it, for instance, and neither did J. Michael Straczynski's graphic novel). I know believe that this version should be the standard. In the backup feature, Sholly Fisch riffs on Jonathan and Martha Kent's struggles at starting a family, which had previously been mentioned earlier in the main story.

Bottom line with this issue is that Grant Morrison starts out the new year by affirming that he's claiming the whole Superman narrative for himself, mixing the familiar ingredients in his signature mythological approach that elevates the material to a totally new level. It may be a little jarring to consider this chronologically with the episodic nature of earlier issues, but it's so important that it ultimately doesn't matter.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Quarter Bin #28 "We3 demonstrates my 2012 dilemma"

WE3 (Vertigo)
From October & December 2004, March 2005:
The launching pad for this column is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s tale of a trio of animals (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) who are conscripted into military service via robotic enhancements that allow them to become precision killing machines. If you need a Grant Morrison project that demonstrates his ability to transcend whatever stereotype you may have of his work, this is it, a kind of grownup’s picture book, as it were (akin to Brian K. Vaughn’s PRIDE OF BAGHDAD), a fable about identity and determination that allows you to enter the minds of unusual protagonists. As you can see from the publication dates (and overlooking for the moment the erratic nature of the release schedule), this one’s more than five years old, and yet I didn’t read it for the first time until last year. My biggest excuse for this is that I was in the midst of my transition back into reading comics following my original millennium break (the summer of 1999, actually), and for some reason kept avoiding Morrison, first with NEW X-MEN and then BATMAN, even though I had thoroughly enjoyed his JLA. Perhaps it was because I’d never read INVISIBLES, which was at the time his most relevant work (and was the subject of rumors at the time suggesting that it could become a TV series), and so didn’t feel that I was big enough a fan to jump into projects that seemed geared toward his true admirers. Again, I was just making my way back into comics. I was even skipping ROBIN, even though I used to read that book religiously.

Long story short, not so long after WE3, I began to have a lot of reasons to care about Morrison, chief among them being SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY, and so eventually started delving back into his canon of work, and of course WE3 was one of the crown jewels. I was certainly aware that there was a trade collection available, but it wasn’t until I saw a bundle of the original issues conveniently collected together at Escape Velocity in Colorado Springs that I was finally motivated to read the story for myself. That’s what this column will be about, actually.

2012 is still only a few weeks old, and as regular readers of this blog know, I kept stating throughout last year that I had once again quit reading new comics, not because I fell out of love with them but for financial reasons, it’s a good idea. (Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that I can no longer write about comics!) I spent the entirety of 2011 cheating on that decision; though at least from my end it was obvious that I had drastically cut back from the habits I’d developed in the last few years. That leaves me with the decision I may end up making this year, which is to become the dreaded paperback reader, the one who waits for the trades, a division I have always kind of frowned upon, not just because I have always read the majority of my new comics in single issue form, but because that was always my preference, to be reading the new stuff as it was being published, rather than waiting months and months. Collections are certainly convenient, but in a certain sense, they can also be somewhat artificial. Writers don’t always write in story arcs, and in fact sometimes they write the random issue that really can’t be included in a collection that otherwise focuses on that arc; perhaps the collections from that series will eventually feature every issue, but they might become nonsequential, which technically violates the original intentions of the writer. Maybe that only really matters in a purely intellectual capacity (Morrison’s SEVEN SOLDIERS was a particularly tricky one, consisting of seven mini-series that could be read individually, or in the specific sequence in which they were released, which is the way they’ve been collected), I don’t know.

Reading individual issues does allow you to feel as if you’re a part of something, while collections can have the connotation that you’ve merely joined up with something that’s already happened. You might as well call it the present versus past tense dilemma, and like I’ve said, maybe it doesn’t really matter, and that’s what I’ll discover this year. This blog spends time writing about “new” comics (which I’ll put in quotation marks for the moment, strictly for argument’s sake) as well as older ones, and that’s why I’ve got the Quarter Bin column clearly distinguished. Another thing I need to recognize is that I enjoy writing this column, which sometimes serves as a way (or an excuse) to rummage through back issues bins in search of comics from 1999-2004, from when I hadn’t properly (or couldn’t have, because honestly, it’s become easier) chosen a substitute method to continue semi-actively following comics while trying to maintain a more financially solid lifestyle. (At the time, there was also WIZARD, but reading about comics and actually reading them is not always the same thing.)

As for WE3, I’m now actually wondering if the trade collection isn’t, after all, the best possible way to read this one. I can only imagine what it was like to be reading this story as it was actually published, waiting issue to issue (probably somewhat similar to JOE THE BARBARIAN), because it’s definitely not your usual comic, whether you’re talking superheroes or what most people think of when they hear “graphic novel.” That’s why I called it a grownup picture book, because at their best, that’s probably what comic books really are, whether or not you consider the dominant superhero genre. People might tend to consider comics to almost be juvenile literature with pictures, but the best of them are far more sophisticated than the average book for that reading level. WE3 is proof of that.

Hopefully I’ll get to read stuff like that this year.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Quarter Bin #27 "St. Swithin, Grant Morrison, Batman, and people named Grayson"

From March 1998:
I probably don’t need to make too fine an argument about Grant Morrison having a predilection for writing outsiders. Now, one could write quite an essay concerning the many different ways that Morrison has come to define “outsider,” but suffice it to say, this done-in-one story is an example of him attempting to place that impulse in a more ordinary setting, using contemporary characters and a holiday (that British folk will recognize, anyway). I happen to greatly favor comics that feature caption narration, and that’s exactly what this one does. You wouldn’t be able to differentiate it from the kind of graphic novels that the mainstream and comic book awards seem to prefer (for the sake of that mainstream credibility), and it’s one of those Morrison projects that makes you wonder what his work would be like if he took a few more steps away from superheroes every now and again (though I firmly believe that when all’s said and done, he’ll emerge as one of the most important comic book writers ever).

From August 1990:
The conclusion of Morrison’s five-part “Gothic” arc (which followed his ARKHAM ASYLUM and was the only other substantial Bat-work prior to what he’s been doing since 2006), which I have still yet to read in its entirety (I believe that all good things don’t need to be rushed, though it doesn’t hurt to get around to them). ST. SWITHIN’S DAY was one of those random Morrison works that are fantastic to find, while “Gothic” is one that I’ve been aware of for years but haven’t made a huge effort to read simply for the fact that in the grand scheme, it now merely represents what he can do if he only puts in a tenth of the effort he’s capable of achieving. When you’re making your way through a favorite writer whilst reading other writers and god knows doing what else, sometimes it’s okay to dial back the comprehensive appreciation (but again, only for so long!). Part of the reason I write this Quarter Bin column is to demonstrate my own path to discovery, not so much to explain everything that I find, so that anyone who’s reading this and wondering how it’s done needn’t be too intimidated. In other words, I find what I like, and so can you.

From April 2001:
Like LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT, GOTHAM KNIGHTS was another book added to the Batman family of ongoing series that maybe could be considered extraneous (given that the Dark Knight presumably will always have DETECTIVE COMICS and BATMAN itself, and two is more than most characters will ever enjoy), though with Batman, usually a new title really is warranted, because it allows creators to approach his world from a fresh perspective. I picked this one up because it featured Devin Grayson and Roger Robinson, both of whom I consider to be wildly unappreciated, on the creative team. Grayson happens to be writing Nightwing (as she did in his own books for a number of years, the best writer not named Chuck Dixon or Kyle Higgins to do so) in this issue, and that was the other reason I couldn’t pass it up.

From July 2001:
Grayson and Robinson are still at work, and still writing Nightwing (though with Batman in the mix), concluding their tale of Matatoa, a villain I would love to see resurface. (That’s what can be so interesting about different creative eras, in that interesting concepts a succeeding creative team or two decided to ignore can be easily brought back). Since GOTHAM KNIGHTS came about when I wasn’t reading comics, it’s always a nice title to sample from the back issue bins. Grayson gets a bad rap for trying to make Nightwing too vulnerable, but I think a writer who can understand how a character works and the most interesting things to do with them shouldn’t be shunned, but rather celebrated.

BATMAN #436 (DC)
From 1989:
Mar Wolfman begins “Batman Year 3” (following Frank Miller’s “Year One” and Mike Barr’s “Year Two”), focusing on Dick Grayson’s origins (famously inserting Tim Drake into the picture so that the new Robin would have a strong link to the Batman family’s past). Maybe call Kyle Higgins a little shameless for exploiting this particular impulse of some Nightwing fans, but this particular comic book background never gets old for me, Dick’s circus experiences evoking something that becomes less familiar to today’s youth with every passing year. Just imagine, fifty years from now, trying to explain this same story to a kid who has never even heard of the circus! I’m sure modifications will be made, just as DC has consistently done in the past, why a story like “Year Three” was even written in the first place, to update, with new significance, new context, new perspective, something we already know.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Quarter Bin #26 "Alan Moore's Supreme"

No Image Comics character underwent a greater creative revision than Rob Liefeld’s Supreme, and that was all thanks to Alan Moore, who came onto the series with #41 and refashioned it as a Superman pastiche, which ran until #56, was rebooted for six more issues, and then unambiguously refashioned as Tom Strong when Moore launched his own America’s Best Comics line.

Without getting into the whole thing, and maybe leaving out the kind of interpretation found in the above paragraph, I’ll just jump into the issues I selected from the Escape Velocity back issues bins…

SUPREME #50 (Awesome)
From July 1997:
Moore’s run with the character now stretched at this point to ten issues, and this was actually the writer’s first pairing with Chris Sprouse (the duo would most famously collaborate on Tom Strong). The issue heavily leans on Moore’s interpretation of Supreme as a surrogate for Superman, and spends its time revisiting the storytelling style of the 1950s. For many readers at the time, these Supreme stories were an entirely unexpected gift from a creator who’d famously vowed to stop working for mainstream publishers the previous decade, and as such seemingly sworn off superhero comics.

SUPREME #55 (Awesome)
From December 1997:
In case you were wondering if the tone of Moore’s Supreme stories ever deviated, this issue might possibly elucidate the matter. It features what the cover promises is “the most controversial story you’ll read all year,” mostly because it posits an alternate timeline in which the South won the Civil War, and so everything in the modern day, until corrected, reflects a KKK dream come true. And actually, it’s not really heavy on nostalgia this time as a more innocent style of storytelling. This is not a comic Marvel or DC would have published.

From May 1999:
The most amusing element of this comic is the way Moore approaches the Clintons, still ensconced in the White House, when one of Supreme’s enemies tries to take over and finds out how domineering the First Lady could be. This was when everyone still assumed she had an easy path to her own presidency (and now we know). It’s not so much that Moore’s version was bad, because from these issues it certainly appears enjoyable, so much that Supreme as a unique character is utterly erased by Moore’s own motives to continue writing a character he denied himself a decade earlier. He is one individual who gives “ornery” new meaning. Just imagine if he didn’t find it so hard to play with others…

Fantastic Four #600

writer: Jonathan Hickman
artists: Steve Epting, Carmine Di Giandomenico, Ming Doyle, Leinil Francis Yu, Farel Dalrymple

When I make a mistake, I like to think I'm strong enough to admit it. I made a mistake. Hickman did have a vision after all, and it may be one of the biggest and most important in recent comics history. The Fantastic Four have stagnated for...decades(?), are were more or less irrelevant until he decided to let everyone believe that he killed off Johnny Storm (anyone who actually read the issue could tell that he wasn't even killed off in the issue), which got everyone talking about the franchise, allowing him to relaunch it (FF), let it evolve (similarly some of the things Dan Slott did in Amazing Spider-Man over the past year). Reed Richards established the Future Foundation, most notably. Since I haven't read most of the issue between "Three" and #600, I had to gloss over much of the climactic developments in the issue, but could easily appreciate everything Hickman did with Johnny, especially how much space he devoted to that element, so that it didn't come off as cheap or gimmicky. Bottom line, Hickman has finally entered the mainstream, and he's reshaping it in his image. Years from now, these are the Marvel comics everyone will remember.

Green Lantern #4

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Doug Mahnke

Since the New 52 relaunch, Johns has finally started writing the Green Lantern I expected since Rebirth, fully character-based tales that truly exploit the rich history of the franchise he inherited in 2005. Please do not misunderstand me: I greatly admire the spectrum corps concept he's been developing over the past few years, but as something that consumed his Green Lantern work almost exclusively during his time writing Hal Jordan, I always felt a little cheated. Ironically, instead of Hal, Johns has been concentrating mostly on Sinestro, a character he has done an excellent job fleshing out. This latest issue is no exception; hopefully most readers will feel a little sympathy for him in the cliffhanger...

Demon Knights #4

writer: Paul Cornell
artist: Michael Choi, Diogenes Neves

This is one of the books from the New 52 that I had intended to sample a long time ago (y'know, relatively speaking), but didn't have a chance to given my altered circumstances (not the least of which being, I don't technically read comics anymore, or definitely differently than I used to). Finally, I found my opportunity. To my surprise, I came upon an issue that doesn't even feature most of the so-called Demon Knights (as far as I can tell, this may be the first issue that term is even used inside the actual book), but instead focuses on the backstory of Shining Knight, and his strange relationship to Merlin and prophecy. Paul Cornell has consistently impressed me as a writer, whether on Captain Britain and MI:13, Knight & Squire, or Action Comics. If all goes well, he will be the next important DC writer, in the same league as Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison. This issue is just the latest example for me.

Avengers: The Children's Crusade #8 (of 9)

writer: Allan Heinberg
artist: Jim Cheung

This is the issue that finally delivers on the book's promise to not only continue Heinberg and Cheung's own Young Avengers, but the story left dangling by House of M, when the Scarlet Witch seemingly, irredeemably went off the deep end. Heinberg makes pointed arguments in her defense while advancing the plot to a climactic death(?). This is the definitive Avengers work in the new millennium, at least for me.

The Mice Templar Vol. III: A Midwinter Night's Dream #6

writer: Bryan J.L. Glass
artist: Victor Santos

I confess to having begun taking this one for granted, partly because I never expected to remain of fairly solitary cheerleader for the Mice Templar. It's a rare Image book that I feel is completely worth reading on a regular basis, a grandly mythological work I can only compare to Oni's Wasteland (a series I will do my best to read again this year, now that new issues will be regularly published). This issue completely rewards readers for having stuck around the series, and certainly for believing there was still something left to say after the seeming fulfillment of young Karic's destiny. I might go so far as to call this the best issue to date.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz #4 (of 8)

writer: Eric Shanower
artist: Skottie Young

I made a conscious decision early in the year to give up reading individual issues of Shanower and Young's Oz adaptations, even though I've been an ardent enthusiast in the past, simply for the fact that at some point, I'd like to own the complete collected editions (the same goes for Marvel's The Stand comics, which were left off the 2011 QB50 for that reason). Since the majority of L. Frank Baum's Oz books are out of print, these comics are my best opportunity to read them, and it quickly became apparent to me that it's a crime that they have become so scarce, since Baum's writing is so infinitely more clever than the Judy Garland movie everyone thinks about when Oz comes up in the popular imagination. All that being said, it was nice to read another issue.

Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!

writer: Grant Morrison
artists: Chris Burnham, Cameron Stewart

To my surprise, Batman, Inc. was another book that didn't exactly receive high marks from the greater Interweb community, even though those who rated it lower than I did (in the 2011 QB50) admitted there were some brilliants issues released in the past year. I suspect Morrison's marks were lower than his efforts in Batman or Batman and Robin because it's more difficult to see how individual episodes impact the greater story, now that Batman's back and basically falling back into the same web of intrigue that culminated in "R.I.P." That the Dark Knight has yet another genius mastermind after him shouldn't be a surprise, especially since this catch-up volume finally reveals just who that mastermind is (I won't spoil it for you here), which should actually be more satisfying to long-term readers than the nefarious Dr. Hurt. This special also includes a complete breakdown of the story to date from the series, in case you weren't, like me, primarily enjoying the innovative and refreshing superhero standalone adventures that were subtly building toward this moment.

Vengeance #5 (of 6)

writer: Joe Casey
artist: Nick Dragotta

Despite its ranking in the 2011 QB50, I had only read one issue of this unique Marvel mini-series last year, though I instantly identified it as one of the more interesting things I've discovered in the House of Ideas. As I know understand it, Vengeance is a kind of culmination of Casey's work for the company (which case, I may need to track more of it down. Basically, this book is like a fresh take on the Marvel landscape, removing almost every recognizable element (except for the bad guys, and anyone who saw Captain America last summer will know all they need to about the Red Skull, who appears this issue) and allowing a true "next generation" to accept the reigns. In my wildest dreams, something like this would actually happen, or at least, Casey could write this book on an ongoing basis. Except the fanboy mainstream would absolutely never allow it. This is basically a Marvel version of the early Vertigo line.

Nightwing #4

writer: Kyle Higgins
artist: Trevor McCarthy

I knew after reading the third issue (the first one I've read of the series) that I would be hooked, given half a chance. This second issue (which is the fourth of the series for anyone else) proved that out, and was a nice little tie-in with the Batgirl issue I previously read, as Babs pays back Dick's visit and they further hash out their present relationship. As anyone knows, they have a complicated history, and it's nice to know that the DCnU has made it a priority, even though it hasn't exactly been one for the past few years. For new readers, I'd like to think that this will help endear both characters as fully-dimensional.

Justice League #4

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Jim Lee

I have not seen a lot of love for this book in my recent travels round the Interweb, which is surprising and then not surprising, considering how highly I rated it in my 2011 QB50. This is an issue that starts putting all the pieces together, firstly by introducing Aquaman and Cyborg and then bringing the big bad, Darkseid, to the stage. With Aquaman joining Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, The Flash, and Wonder Woman, that puts the team together, and with Vic Stone finally activated in his funky new body arrangement, the origin of Cyborg is pretty much complete. As with prior issues, backup material is provided to flesh out members of the S.T.A.R. Labs team (including Vic's father Silas; Thomas "T.O." Morrow; erstwhile father of the Metal Men; Sarah Charles; and Anthony Ivo, erstwhile creator of Amazo).

Preview: Infestation 2

written by Duane Swierczynski
art by David Messina

Perhaps you'll remember IDW's first-ever crossover event, the theoretically improbable Infestation (because the company's best-known assets are all licensed properties). Apparently they're doing it again. The preview I picked up at Heroes & Dragons in Colorado Springs may have actually sold me on this thing. At the very least, this kind of event is unique in comics, not just because it seems like it shouldn't exist, but because an entire framework has to be created from elements that don't normally exist in the individual titles. I don't know how they did it the first time around, but Infestation 2 ties into the whole cult of H.P. Lovecraft (a subculture I was tangentially exposed to in high school, but have never actually experienced for myself). Tie-in properties include Transformers, Dungeons & Dragons, Groom Lake, Weekly World News, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, and 30 Days of Night. I believe I will have to try and check it out...