Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Quarter Bin #37 "Robin"

ROBIN #126 (DC)
From July 2004:
The brief career of Stephanie Brown as Robin begins! Bill Willingham’s run on ROBIN was something I skipped at the time for reasons that are still a little curious to me now. Growing up, I suppose I was attracted the very characters that were designed to interest me, Spider-Man and Robin, youth figures who were created to be surrogates for young readers many decades before I was born. I wasn’t able to read comics right away, and by the time I could, Peter Parker was in the midst of his infamous clone saga, something more involved than I was ready for at the time, but Robin was Tim Drake, and he was just coming into his own. After a couple of mini-series, the first-ever ROBIN ongoing series was launched in 1993, on the heels of “Knightfall,” with Tim being the first Boy Wonder to strike out on his own without resorting to another family unit (i.e. the Teen Titans, which was what Dick Grayson had done before hi, eventually reshaping his vigilante career as Nightwing). ROBIN was one of the first comics I read in earnest from the very beginning, and kept reading into 1999, when I was forced to quit reading comics. In 2004, when I started my journey back, for whatever reason, I didn’t think to jump back into the series, probably because I’d heard what was happening, or possibly because Tim experienced his most important story in this period in the pages of IDENTITY CRISIS, when his father was slain by Captain Boomerang. I didn’t see how the events in his own book reflected these events (I still don’t). And then there was also Stephanie Brown.

I knew what had happened to her, the second Robin killed in the line of action, during “War Games.” Stephanie was a character who’d been featured in Tim Drake’s stories for as long as I could remember, initially depicted as Spoiler, a wannabe vigilante looking for approval, and to step out of the shadow of her criminal father, the Cluemaster. She also had a crush on Tim that he didn’t know how to act on. For me, it was a nice parallel to the relationship I was reading between Superboy and Supergirl at the time. Eventually, during my time away, Tim decided to quit being Robin for a while, and Stephanie assumed the role, in this very issue, as an act of revenge against him. This issue is exactly the synopsis of Stephanie Brown’s heroic ambitions, and the methods she continually employed to achieve them, regardless of the obstacles that kept getting in her way. Batman appears to approve of her decision in the story, but like the post-CRISIS Jason Todd stories, there’s a bigger story that Willingham and the greater Batman family of creators are driving toward, which is “War Games,” in which Stephanie makes the fateful decision to force Batman’s hand when things start to spiral out of control for her again. Long story short, the fourth Robin has an incredibly short shelf-life. Like Jean-Paul Valley and the Reign of the Supermen, Stephanie Brown is a storyline substitute. Tim Drake never even leaves the picture.

There are a number of problems with the execution. For one, Willingham does not appear to be in control of the story even when he’s writing it. This particular issue is an exception. Though he’s writing Tim Drake consistently during the Stephanie Brown: Girl Wonder arc, the story is still not important enough in 2012 to merit a collected edition as a Robin event. It’s secondary character syndrome, the reason Tim Drake doesn’t have his own book in the New 52, even though he managed to have one from 1993 until last summer. Like most other characters besides the lucky Dick Grayson, he’s a legacy character who has failed to mark his own distinctive, separate path, even when he transformed into Red Robin (then again, “Robin” was still in the name, wasn’t it?), and so has been lost in the shuffle.

Stephanie Brown, meanwhile, may in the end have a better fate. Though she was killed off once already, it was with enough controversy that she was brought back, became Spoiler again, and then became the new Batgirl (another thankless role). She’s gone missing in the New 52, but then, she can always fall back on the identity of Spoiler. Hers is a story that can be repeated, and have greater meaning with all the added adversity she triumphs over, no matter how many times she assumes someone else’s name. She’s a cipher, like Lisbeth Salander. Call her the Girl with the Purple Hoodie.

ROBIN #s 143-145 (DC)
From December 2005-January & February 2006:
Willingham, meanwhile, continues on well past Stephanie’s brief reign as Robin, and sure enough, Tim is back in the saddle, thrust into the thick of the O.M.A.C. crisis (which led to the INFINITE CRISIS), and a tie-in with Willingham’s Shadowpact. The three-part story features art by Scott McDaniel, and that was the main reason I bought these particular back issues, curious enough about books I deliberately avoided on original release because the series no longer felt like anything I was familiar with or would care about (soon, however, Adam Beechen took over as writer and I started reading Tim’s adventures again). I have never been able to get into FABLES, so my main experience with Willingham is SHADOWPACT, his fringe heroes book that featured a motley assortment of awesomeness (until he traded off to pal Matt Sturges, who didn’t understand the book as well). If I didn’t understand what Willingham was trying to do with Tim, I knew I loved his Shadowpact, and I love Scott McDaniel even more. These issues follow Tim as he adventures with some commandoes he hooked up with to try and rediscover his motivation to be Robin, and then transition into adventures that are more Shadowpact than Robin in nature, so they’re easy to read an enjoy no matter how I feel about this period in Tim’s career.

Yes, Damian Wayne is the most interesting Robin in ages, but pointedly his tales are all told in association with one Batman or another. He doesn’t have his own book, and he doesn’t come off as well when he’s, say, trying to work as a more conventional Robin, attempting to work with the Teen Titans. He’s more like Stephanie Brown than Tim Drake. That may be a good thing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Green Lantern #7

written by Geoff Johns
art by Doug Mahnke

"Forget your small life on this small world."

Sinestro is not one for subtlety (hence his name being "Sinestro," a name that came about long before General Grievous), and so a nugget of wisdom like that is fairly common, but it's far more important than it seems.

What he's telling Hal Jordan is that Earth is not the most important or best place for a Green Lantern. That's something Geoff Johns has understood longer than probably anyone else.

What's a Green Lantern doing on Earth, anyway, much less two or three or four (depending how many of the human Corpsmen are home at any given time)? There are thousands of other heroes. There's no reason for Green Lantern to be there, especially when he has a whole sector, let alone the whole galaxy he can patrol. Johns has been putting Hal into space since he started rolling in his momentum, first with the Sinestro Corps War, and then Blackest Night, and now here we go again, because the Guardians are looking to replace the Corps, and who knows what's going on? Sinestro, yeah, but also...the Indigo Tribe.

The Indigo Tribe has been among the most important and mysterious creations Johns has brought to the Green Lantern table, but until now they've remained in the background, looking after their own interests, which readers have been happy to assume have nothing much to do with ours.

Well, that's not true. That's the benefit of someone with a strong vision sticking around a mythology like this, because there's so much to explore, so many important stories to tell, and yeah, Johns still has some of those up his sleeve as far as Green Lantern goes. Reading an issue like this is learning that all over again, and this is what he's been doing since the New 52 restart, which is simply incredible. Plenty of creators can stick with a single property for long periods of time, but they almost never have a cohesive vision that extends from the beginning and just keeps continuing. That's what you've got here.

How Green Lantern is still not recognized as the best superhero comic of the modern era is beyond me. But we'll get there yet.

Quarter Bin #36 "The Invisible Catwoman Avenger as Interpreted by Loeb, Morrison, & Johns"

From November 2004:
Here’s Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale again, continuing what they began in THE LONG HALLOWEEN and DARK VICTORY, this time centering their story on Selina Kyle. Their storytelling is so effortless, it’s baffling that fans have found it so easy in the last half dozen years to try and erase their legacy. In a way, I’m glad that I’ve been in the position to play catch-up with their projects, as it affords me an opportunity to read it as if it’s new, so I can pretend that they’re still active. I know Loeb is still working at Marvel, but he seems to have abandoned the kind of stories he does best, which is a little incomprehensible. I assume it’s because that’s the easiest way to survive at Marvel, because character-rich stories are secondary at the House of Ideas, the exception rather than the rule, which is the opposite of the company’s public perception. But it’s the truth. WHEN IN ROME, by the way, was a six-issue mini-series, so I’ve got more to read, when I get the opportunity.

From December 1994:
An omnibus edition of the complete series is being released in August, and so that’s probably when I’m going to begin reading the whole story. Ironically, when I scoured Heroes & Dragons for back issues, I came back with an issue I’d already read in the first volume, SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION. It’s fine, because Grant Morrison is Grant Morrison, and this way I get to read a little of what he was like in the letters column, and in 1994, I guess both he and his readers felt like being cheeky, because that’s what the letters in this issue are like, reactions from the start of the series. I know at one point there was going to be a TV show, but that never happened, and reading about that was actually one of the first times I started taking Morrison’s legacy seriously. Reading comics can sometimes form a false sense of their overall worth. It’s only when you step back that you begin to appreciate them, and the several times I’ve been forced to do that has only heightened my appreciation of Morrison particularly, as can plainly be seen on this blog. THE INVISIBLES is just one of the books he did around this point in time that was as subversive as he could make it (which makes his mainstream work since all the more remarkable, the reverse Alan Moore). One has the sense that his writing will only become more lucid (as he periodically experiments with impressionist work like WE3 and JOE THE BARBARIAN), that he may very well channel his talents to stuff even his most skeptical critics will be able to appreciate. And for the rest of us, there’s stuff like this.

THE AVENGERS #s 70-71 (Marvel)
From October-November 2003:
These issues are also numbered 485 and 486, and they are written by Geoff Johns, some of the few comics he’s written outside of DC. And for me, one of them is fairly infamous. In #71, Hank Pym crawls up the chest of Janet Van Dyne, clearly wet, and the implication is obvious. Pym is Ant-Man/many-other-identities, has the ability to both grow and…shrink. (Van Dyne shrinks, too, and is better known as Wasp. They’re both founding Avengers, but are not, so far as the publicity has revealed, in the new movie.) Back in 2003, I read about this scene with disgust (yes, I was an Internet fanboy), and it colored my opinion of Geoff Johns as representative of the immature comics I kept reading about at that time. Johns broke into comics at about the same time I had to stop reading in, 1999, and so far as I knew, wasn’t a talent worth considering, and reading about this scene was the last straw. I was never going to care about this writer, this hack! Some ten years later, he’s one of my favorite writers. Actually reading his AVENGERS is one sign of this drastic transformation of opinion. To my mind, this is the way the team should be written, not as a glorified vanity project (sorry, fans of Brian Michael Bendis), full of interest in the actual characters. It’s not possible to write them like this all the time because, well, Marvel cares more about telling stories than writing about their characters, which is exactly the opposite of the DC instinct, which is why Johns writes at one company today and not the other. The first issue is the conclusion of “Red Zone,” which features Red Skull’s attempted hostile takeover of America following an elaborate ruse that put him in the president’s cabinet. Johns makes more sense of Black Panther in this one issue than I’ve been able to gleam from any other appearance or series. We’ll also note that the next issue, with its heavy spotlight on the incredible shrinking Avengers, would be impossible to publish today, unless in the pages of the little-respected Young Avengers tale of THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE. But then, how could it be any other way?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Work of Jesse Grillo in Bleeding Ink

On the heels of reviewing Sensory Distortion, I've had the opportunity to look at more of writer Jesse Grillo's work for Bleeding Ink.

Warzone reminds me a great deal of Jason Aaron's Scalped (and also sports clear echoes of Sensory Distortion), as veterans of the Afghanistan War found themselves back home and trying to make sense of their lives, which have degenerated into unfortunate relationships with drugs and those who provide them. The lead character is Johnny, who becomes charged with a mission of vengeance that puts him right back into, you guessed it, the warzone.

DemiGods, meanwhile, is a variation on the super-soldier story (you may be thinking of Captain America, but the closest analogy is actually the Jessica Alba TV show Dark Angel, or a more aggressive version of Fringe), in which Grillo explores the consequences of creating them en masse, creating a dystopian future in which mankind's only hope rests in the children of these misbegotten heroes, having inherited their parents abilities and raised in captivity, until they're freed by sympathizers and seek revenge.

Chapel is the most complex offering, with the first issue serving as a straight-up origin issue, both introducing the title character and his already-complicated relationship with the world around him, how he resents the robots struggling to be accepted as ordinary individuals in society, and his transformation into a cyborg following a disastrous confrontation that would otherwise have cost him his life. You can think of it as a twist between Blade Runner and I, Robot.

The art in Warzone features the same dynamic coloring presented in Sensory Distortion, while Chapel has an effective contrast in black and white. DemiGods is the least dynamic artistically. The more you read of Grillo, the more you can appreciate his ability to turn variations on a common theme. He is certainly an asset to the formative development of the Bleeding Ink studio, and an emerging talent of the comics scene.

Review: Sensory Distortion

Sensory Distortion is a new graphic novel from Bleeding Ink. If you like your graphic novels to be graphic, then you'll love Sensory Distortion.

Like the modern wave of horror movies, the basic story can be explained as "bad things happen to college kids." Six friends take a weekend road trip and inadvertently stumble on the "demon weed" of a nearby Indian reservation, which leads to harrowing experiences with their worst fears. Our lead character is Karen, who's trying to escape from an abusive father, thinking she's gotten as far away as she possibly can. The demon weed proves her wrong, and then the father appears and proves her wrong again.

Social Distortion can be described as a coming of age story. The "demon weed" is originally introduced as part of a rite of passage in the Indian community before a quick transition to our cast of friends who have their own drugs they take for recreation purposes, unaware that a run-in with a cop will lose them their best stuff, leading to the fateful deal for the drug neither they nor the Indian youth who provides it for them can appreciate in that moment. The youth's grandfather is furious when he realizes what's happened, and tries to set things right before it's too late, but of course it's too late already, for most of them.

Karen has no idea that her father's come back, killing her mother and turning to Karen for more. The Indian youth finds her and helps her face the fear she still feels toward her father, but then the real thing appears, and she finds herself in the unlikely position of overcoming her worst nightmare twice in the same day.

All of this seems like fairly standard material, but it's the art that's at the heart of Sensory Distortion. Blessed with some of the most dynamic coloring in any comic book I've seen, the story glides on a wave of euphoria, driving home the theme of climactic experience that is Karen's reward. She wasn't expecting anything of this, but she got it anyway.

That's Sensory Distortion in a nutshell. It's definitely worth a look. Visit Bleeding Ink's Facebook page for more information.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Quarter Bin #35 "Archive Edition!"

From March 2007:
Back when I was researching appearances for Bloodlines character Sparx, I came across this comic, and mistakenly purchased the issue before it, which incredibly I had already read and/or purchased, so it was with much appreciation that I actually found the right one sometime later in the back issues bins at Heroes & Dragons. Turns out she only makes an appearance on the cover (along with Loose Cannon, among others), but that’s okay, because I can still enjoy the issue as a typical SUPERMAN/BATMAN experience. It may not be remembered in 2012, but this was one of the hottest books of the new millennium, a Jeph Loeb project that was basically the second coming of Grant Morrison’s JLA, a series that centered on iconic characters in iconic ways, only this time further consolidated to the two most important superheroes in the DC canon, strictly from their perspective. By the time the series ended, you might be forgiven to having forgotten that it was an important book, because it had degenerated in significance in much the same way JLA did after Morrison left, how important readers then considered it. Mark Verheiden concludes his tale of an alien invasion revealed to be the work of Despero, a Justice League villain who has not been seen as a major threat for years. The twist is that all of Earth’s alien champions are turned against humanity. In a longer story arc, this would have had much more impact. Centralized on Superman and Batman, as is necessary in a series called SUPERMAN/BATMAN, it works better than it should, with Alfred serving as narrator and focusing on Batman’s perspective.

From January 1994:
Star Trek has been subject to one of the comic book medium’s worst hot potato games. Marvel had the property, then DC, then Malibu jumped into the game with DS9, and then Marvel had it again, and now IDW has it (and has, pound-for-pound, done the most good with it). Unlike Star Wars, which has called Dark Horse home for years, Star Trek had new screen material being produced throughout this period, and so that’s probably why it happened, and probably why there’s been so many interpretations about what exactly a Star Trek comic should be. (Dark Horse, meanwhile, launched immediately into the same kind of adventures the books started doing, only vaguely related to the screen material, though you won’t hear the fans of these efforts complaining, which I would say is a problem.) The DC material started out trying to fill in gaps around the original movies, and then things grew complicated when THE NEXT GENERATION premiered, and grew still more complicated when DEEP SPACE NINE came about (hence why Malibu produced this comic, and not DC). VOYAGER had a comic when Marvel had the franchise again, but only briefly. ENTERPRISE, so far as I know, has still never been represented in comic book form. I have not read enough of the results in any form to make a total judgment on the efforts, but I will never make the argument that the comics are an adequate substitute for the shows (or movies). (The books aren’t, either, but there are fans here, too, who curiously have tried to make that argument for years.) I bought this issue because it seemed like the most likely one in the available selection to give its best foot forward, with a cover that suggested Sisko would be dealing with the emotional baggage of Wolf 359 (if I need to explain that, then you shouldn’t be reading any of this particular entry). Turns out there are three stories in this issue, and each of them seem to be geared for younger readers, which is a disappointment to an older reader, especially one who knows in 2012 that older viewers were exactly the intended audience for DS9, even if the series was slow to reach that point. True, the early seasons could be a little deliberation in presentation, but episodes like “A Man Alone” and “Duet” from the first season, for instance, demonstrate a maturity that Star Trek had rarely attained previously. I would have hoped that comic books made after these episodes (the entire comic book, in fact, was only launched after the first season had concluded, a point brought up in the letters column) would have reflected that quality. These are not notes from a sour fanboy, because god knows there have been plenty of notes from sour Star Trek fanboys on the Internet, but reflections from a comic book fan who wanted to see what was out there. This is what he found.

From January 2005:
Visitors to this blog should already know how I’ve come to cherish the Loeb/Sale Challengers book that was created more than a decade prior to this particular effort, and so you’ll know why I gave it a shot. The creator is Howard Chaykin, and as with every other work by Howard Chaykin it’s quintessentially Howard Chaykin in nature. (That’s another statement I will not explain if you don’t understand it already.) Howard’s someone who plays by his own rules, and so when he gets his hands on a property like the Challengers, you ought to know that it won’t be like anything else you’ve read under that name. In fact, he’s got his own team, and this mini-series (with this being the concluding issue) was an origin that I assume led to nothing else, which is another shame (and maybe this is another Challengers comic that I will have to track down and read in its entirety, which is exactly what happened a year ago). Other than being a tad confusing, it’s brilliant. (My favorite Chaykin is the DIE HARD: YEAR ONE book he did for Boom!, but then, I haven’t read too much, considering he’s got a long career beyond what I’ve experienced, and he seems to specialize in standalone projects that are best remembered by Howard Chaykin fans…and I have a hard time finding other Howard Chaykin fans beyond the publishers who keep giving him paychecks.) Wow, so what have I actually said about this one? I’m afraid I’m making Howard out to be a boogeyman. What I’m really saying here is, if Howard Chaykin is attached to a project, it’s worth checking out, and if the Challengers, in whatever form they take, are involved, it’s worth checking out. And combined? I’m going to have to check it out…

CEREBUS ARCHIVES #1 (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
From April 2009:
The title of this column finally becomes clear! I bought this issue in the hopes of finding actual Cerebus material, but that was not to be. This is literally archive material, but not Cerebus in nature; rather, it’s David Sim’s own history. CEREBUS is one of the most important comic books of the last forty years, the longest-running independent work, not simply from a single creator, but period. Back in 2004, I had the chance to read the final issues, because I was just getting back into comics, and the final issues were being published, but I was not prepared to appreciate that fact, and so I missed the opportunity and Heroes & Dragons was not prepared in 2011 to compensate. Instead there was this. (I bought the first issue of Sim’s follow-up work, GLAMOURPUSS, when it came out, but didn’t attempt to continue reading that series.) I suppose it’s interesting to learn how militantly Canadian Sim was in those days when he was trying to break into comics, but I really wanted to read me some Cerebus. That will just have to be one of my quests.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Preview: AvX and Vertigo 2012

I love preview books. I especially love it when there's a lot of meat to the previews. Such is the case with the preview books I get to talk about now.

Everyone knows about AvX, otherwise known as Avengers vs. X-Men. As outlined in this preview, the story's lineage is this:

1. X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga, which is not surprising, since someone seems to have finally realized the Phoenix is a huge element of the X-Men mythology.
2. Avengers: Disassembled, the first Brian Michael Bendis impact story, important for that if no other reason.
3. House of M, the elephant in the room.
4. X-Men: Messiah Complex, the most relevant X-Men story of the modern era.
5. X-Force/Cable: Messiah War, in which someone actually tries to do something with it.
6. X-Men: Second Coming, in which Hope returns.
7. Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis Vol. 1, in which Marvel pretends is more important than Civil War or some other important story.
8. New Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis Vol. 1, in which Marvel continues to pretend much of the Bendis Avengers didn't exist to be Bendis Avengers.
9. Uncanny X-Men: The Birth of Generation Hope, in which someone pretends that the X-Men have actually not been squandering Hope.
10. Avengers: The Children's Crusade, in which someone actually appreciates this book.
11. X-Men: Schism, in which someone pretends that this exact story hasn't been told a dozen times in the recent X-Men past.
12. Avengers vs. X-Men: It's Coming, in which hopefully (ha!) Marvel finds some relevant stories that don't have anything to do with the above.

So on the one hand, I'm glad that Marvel is having some fun telling fans that this is another story they've intentionally been building toward, but it's increasingly unlikely that anyone will believe them when they say there will be definitive and long-lasting actual repercussions from this event. That's why the title is more generic and hoping to cash in on the Civil War concept of simply pitting groups of fans against each other.

No, I'm not cynical, why do you ask?

Then there's the Vertigo Preview 2012, which provides some previews for some fairly generic new series, including Fairest, the latest Bill Willingham effort to milk the success of Fables; Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child, which seeks to milk further sympathy from Hurricane Katrina; The New Deadwardians, which seeks to milk the zombie phenomenon; and finally Saucer Country, the one book that seems to have a unique vision, from Paul Cornell, whose premise cannot be entirely explained in this preview, and is written by Paul Cornell, to emphasize, a writer I believe will be among the biggest in the medium, certainly thanks to projects like this.

But that's my take on material meant to provoke a gut reaction.

The Stand: The Night Has Come #6 (of 6)

writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
artist: Mike Perkins

Hard to believe that it only took seven mini-series, thirty-one issues, and almost four years to complete an adaptation of Stephen King's masterpiece.

Okay, hard to believe because this was an incredibly important project for me, not because I had anything to do with it creatively, because I was just a reader, but rather because the original preview issue was something I picked up on a whim. I went to Stephen King's high school, and then Stephen King's college (and currently live in one of the few states King also happened to live in other than Maine), but wasn't what you could call an avid reader, more like an infrequent admirer (of The Green Mile, Different Seasons, and The Shining, but not from my original reading of The Gunslinger).

I had never read The Stand, could only scoff at the suggestions in the preview about "famous scenes" like the Lincoln Tunnel. I didn't know any of those characters!

And yet the good people behind this project imparted in me some sense of their passion, and so I started reading the comics, and then read the book, and then saw the TV mini-series. And I fell in love.

One of the sacrifices I had to make last year was to quit reading the comics, because it would have been impractical to try and keep tracking down new issues, especially in the period where I truly believed I wouldn't read a new comic book again for a long time (which lasted for about half the year).

And so this is pretty much the first issue I've read for more than a year. And it happens to be the finale. There are more loving tributes for what was clearly a labor of love for all involved. I read some of the early Dark Tower comics, but I came to embrace this one as the definitive Stephen King adaptation. I don't think I'll be changing my mind anytime soon.

Shinku #3

writer: Ron Marz
artist: Lee Moder

I picked this one up because I kind of felt bad for the clerk who ordered a thousand copies which seemed destined to sit unappreciated (I was later told that this wasn't even what they'd actually ordered), and the fact that Ron Marz wrote it.

I've been a fan of Marz since he created Kyle Rayner in 1994, but I haven't actually read him much in the last few years, since he (as I would term it) exiled himself to lesser franchises and publishers. Yet I sensed there was something special to this particular effort, even though the main hook was a distinctively dressed female protagonist who busted out fancy ninja moves with a sword in the few pages I glanced at in the store.

The story, it seems, involves vampires, but in a thoroughly engaging way, more akin to Underworld and Blade than Twilight, but with richly envisioned characters. This is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Nightwing #6

writer: Kyle Higgins
artists: Eddy Barrows & Geraldo Borges

This is the best thing I can say for this series: the resulting trade paperback of these initial issues may be destined to be one of the essential Dick Grayson stories.

That's a testament both to the enduring potential of the original Boy Wonder, and also to Kyle Higgins' ability to understand what exactly was necessary to make Nightwing's second series seem relevant after Dick ran around as (a very popular) Batman for a few years.

To revert Dick's story back to Haly's Circus might have seemed like a gimmick in anyone else's hands, but Higgins not only realized the overlooked importance of the character's roots, but how the story could then comment on the state of the circus in the modern world as well.

For a long time now, Dick Grayson has been a product of association, whether with Batman or the Teen Titans. When Chuck Dixon launched the first Nightwing series in 1996, he tried to spin Dick's tales as a vigilante trying his best to be the Batman of another pathetic urban landscape, and that worked really well while it lasted, but then it fell apart kind of awkwardly.

What I'm saying here is, just read this series already, even if you aren't a life-long fan of the character. You'll find something that's its own shade of intriguing.

The Twelve #10

writer: J. Michael Straczynski
artist: Chris Weston

Honestly, I'm beginning to see this one more and more as an update of Alan Moore's Watchmen. It's been so obvious, but I think it's important to start with that as the lead.

What most readers will probably be thinking instead is, They actually continued it finally?!? Yes, it's been an incredibly long wait for the final three issues, and anyone who really loved this book, and that would be everyone who read the original issues, has been waiting patiently, and got to enjoy a one-shot from Weston in the meantime, which now serves as a bonus.

The story is a classic mystery, built around a whole team of characters who share Captain America's second origin, how he was deep-frozen at the end of WWII and later revived, except these are all characters who waited many more decades than Steve Rogers to celebrate their comeback, all vintage Marvel Golden Age creations reclaimed by J. Michael Straczynski for a self-contained tale that explores their potential in ways that weren't possible in the format comics were written at the time, and ending up with something that resembles how Moore crafted a character-driven fable that delved into the limits of superheroes, both as archetypes and storytelling elements.

There's a big revelation this issue, which leaves you wondering what'll fill out the remaining chapters, but you've waited this long, haven't you? Straczynski usually has some a big concept in mind, and it's a good bet that he had one here, too.

Justice League #6

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Jim Lee

The most incredible thing about the conclusion to the first arc of this series is that Geoff Johns does not succumb to the same impulse as every other writer of the past thirty years to try and explain the whole Fourth World story, much less the significance of Darkseid, instead keeping the focus on the budding eponymous team.

I mean, seriously, what intrigues you more, the mystery of the villain or having his whole story recounted every time he appears? For readers who know who he is and where he came from, Darkseid's appearance makes sense as a threat big enough to warrant the birth of the Justice League, and is maybe only a little frustrating (but then, the New Gods have never actually been popular); to new readers it's just another hook, as in, when are we going to see that again?

But again, Johns keeps the focus on the team, allowing the reader to experience them as they experience each other, and the reaction from the outside world. (No offense to the thousands of fans eager for the Avengers movie, but are those heroes really in the same league?)

And on top of that, we get some teases about future threats, including Pandora, as well as a glimpse at Geoff's vision for the Phantom Stranger, and how he's going to weave yet another epic mythology out of someone else's existing sandbox, what he's been doing with Green Lantern for the past half dozen years.

Do I really need to keep explaining how awesome this book is?

Quatermain #1

writers: Clay & Susan Griffith
artist: Patricio Carbajal

Allan Quatermain is a character whose cultural legacy was almost salvaged by Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and whose role in the movie Moore reviled torpedoed both his prospects and Sean Connery's continued interest in an acting career), so it was great interest that I discovered this particular Bluewater effort.

In short, Quatermain makes an ideal alternative comic book hero, because he's about as unlike anything else you'll find that you call make that your excuse to care. He's an older figure, and his adventures take place not only in the past, but on an entire continent usually only relevant to the medium when some preposterous figure like Black Panther is prancing about.

And the amazing thing is that this comic is actually really good. Well, maybe the art is just adequate, but the writing is superb, making you wonder all over again why Quatermain was only attempted once before as a member of a literary hodgepodge.

Long story short, you need to read this one.

Demon Knights #5

writer: Paul Cornell
artist: Diogenes Neves

This is my second issue of Paul Cornell's Demon Knights, but I don't feel near as lost as you might expect, considering the last issue was a spotlight on a single member of the ensemble, and this one splashes everyone into the mix (and ends up reading a lot like Cornell's excellent Captain Britain and MI13).

Cornell is one of my favorite writers, so that's why I keep sampling this book, even though I'm never sure when I'll get to read another issue, much less how long he'll get to write this one (longevity is not one of his strong suits, which I attribute to editorial decisions more than anything).

One of the great virtues of this series, aside from Cornell himself (and Diogenes Neves) is the way it helps shape DC history, even bringing in historical Amazons (which is something I'm surprised hasn't really been done before). Too often comics are written from the perspective that an ongoing project either takes place in the crowded present, as a Western, or the distant past. This one's a welcome example of the rich prospects to be found elsewhere, where we can find Etrigan in his element for the first time; check in with Vandal Savage, who's easily one of the most interesting characters DC usually has no clue what to do with; and even check in with the Shining Knight legacy, recently explored by Grant Morrison in Seven Soldiers.

Yet it seems few readers are paying attention, which is a curse Cornell has been stung with for far too long now. Will it take his new Vertigo series, Saucer Country, for fans to finally take notice?

Aquaman #6

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado

I haven't been trying to read this one in the same way I have Johns' other New 52 efforts, Green Lantern and Justice League, possibly because it reminds me of the feeling-out period he went through in the post-Rebirth adjustments he needed to figure out Hal Jordan. It was the "other League" announcements that convinced me Johns had finally figured out what his grand vision of Aquaman really was, and so here I am.

This issue, however, is another example that his favorite character in this franchise is Mera, the one he's single-handedly crafted into a major player since Blackest Night and Brightest Day. The only thing that drags this issue down is the long-drawn faces of Joe Prado, which makes the book feel like one of those indy series that have great potential but poor art, which is a little incomprehensible for a New 52 book being written by Geoff Johns.

But I'll be hanging around this surf for a while.

RASL #13

writer & artist: Jeff Smith

This is a key issue in the series, probably ties every existing element together in a way that will help readers understand what exactly Jeff Smith has been trying to do with the follow-up to his acclaimed Bone.

Lead character Rob Johnson has been a mysterious since the first issue, the strange man who's been running around the entire series, whether across desert landscapes or jumping to alternate realities, and we've gotten snatches about his motivations and who exactly he's running from, or running toward, partners and opponents that help explain but don't exactly spell out his story. Sporadically, Smith spends time on Nikola Tesla, the genius inventor whose legacy would have been bigger if not for the more accommodating Thomas Edison working at the same time.

This issue we learn that Rob began his own troubles by agreeing to share with the U.S. military his theories about new practical applications for Tesla's old ideas, apparently without himself considering the unfortunate results if miscalculated, as Smith himself had already suggested in earlier issues happening to Tesla back in the day, under exactly the same circumstances. Rob has been frantically trying to undo his own mess, which includes his relationship with Maya, the name that has been tattooed on his arm all this time, but a girl who's been as elusive as just about everything else about this book.

Smith has been minimalist the whole time, purposefully, as if the reader, too, is locked up in Rob's guilt, and his need for redemption, however unlikely and improbable, as if we've been trying to make peace with Tesla, who still, incredibly, has never been publicly redeemed. RASL is a reclamation project, and proof positive of just how complicated it can be.

A book like this doesn't become my favorite because it's easy, but because it's a rewarding challenge, a virtue I value above all.

Quarter Bin #34 "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

From September 1997:
There really was a time where Jim Krueger was a writer people might have actually cared about. Before he got sucked into being Alex Ross’s hapless collaborator, Krueger was a rising star, whose FOOT SOLDIERS seemed to be a lightning rod, attracting the best artists in the business and surviving apparent fan apathy, landing at Image at the dawn of its reinvention as a virtual indy graveyard. (Yes, I sound like I’m insulting everyone.) FOOT SOLDIERS was a passion project for Krueger, a vision of the next generation of superheroes. Stumbling on a comic like this (I’d heard of the series before, but had never read it) is like discovering a treasure that might easily have been appreciated, in different circumstances. He was probably a decade early, and it’s just a shame, because there’s so much hope and potential here, an impact that could have meant something. Well, it’s not inconceivable that he could someday return to it, and maybe getting Ross to collaborate with him on this rather than someone else’s vision would be the trick necessary to make it work (both success for the Foot Soldiers and getting something valuable out of this relationship). The artists represented in this issue, by the way, are Steve Yeowell, Phil Hester, and the late Mike Parobeck. See what I mean now? Along with the other two comics in this column, this was found at an antiques marketplace, the kind of place I like to visit every now and again with the hope of finding some interesting comics. It worked this time!

From August 1988:
I seriously believe that as a single character, Martian Manhunter is responsible for more of my comics reading pleasure than any other superhero. This is partly because he receives minimal attention, only the sporadic attempts at solo adventures, but when he gets it, the material is almost universally fascinating, and from a wide variety of writers. It’s a safe bet that J.M. DeMatteis is responsible for this, which was a terrific thing to discover at the aforementioned antiques marketplace, because I had no idea this mini-series existed, probably the ancestor story for the modern interpretation of J’onn Jonzz, on the heels of the “Bwa-Ha-Ha League” making its initial splash (which Jenette Kahn in all seriousness compares in importance with DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN on the inside cover), which famously featured J’onn becoming addicted to Oreos. I think Martian Manhunter’s future could have been drastically altered if he’d become one of the characters drafted into the Vertigo movement. Actually, I would argue that DC could do worse than revive that particular trend, new interpretations of deserving characters within its Vertigo line. I’m not saying that it has to change the Vertigo mandate entirely, but that there’s still considerable virtue to what the original impulse was able to accomplish.

GATECRASHER #1 (Black Bull)
From March 2000:
Mark Waid is one of those creators who seems to function best when he’s in a controlled environment, but he’d got this impulse to break free from such confines at random moments in his career, and it’s to the detriment of anyone who appreciates one of modern comics’ masters at his best. GATECRASHER is one of those examples. Black Bull was a vanity project for Gareb Shamus of Wizard fame, and while he might have thought it was cool to run his own comic book company, I think if he’s willing to do so, he’ll admit now that it was not something he should have been doing. Waid’s vision, as always, is pretty fantastic, a story about soldiers guarding against aliens who have access to what I will call Stargates (well, actually, once I put it like that, that’s exactly what this series was, his version of the Stargate franchise), yet the execution doesn’t really do it any favors, immature so that it can be edgy, or at least that it’s edgy, unfocused, centered on some interesting characters, but not presented in a way that the reader is compelled to take any of them seriously. The artist, perhaps naturally, is Amanda Conner, who does not believe in subtlety, and usually that’s a good thing, but not in this case. Waid is a creator who grew up as a fanboy, and that’s how he writes best, better than anyone except Geoff Johns or Grant Morrison (which made it fitting that he worked with both of them in the seminal 52). There’s a real sense that he’s trying to figure out what it means to be a writer of his own vision, but he tries to throw too much at the canvas without really considering the structure, like his ongoing Plutonian project at Boom!, which in anyone else’s hands would have naturally been a mini-series, except Waid is so hungry to prove himself outside of the Big Two system (which he invariably needs to revert to in order to remind readers why they like him, as he’s done again with DAREDEVIL) that he can’t take the necessary time to figure out what that essential story is, what is actually personal to him. As an early step in the process, GATECRASHER is certainly interesting to look at, but it’s also an example of what he needs to avoid. Let’s hope he eventually succeeds.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Quarter Bin #33 "Loeb & Sale in Yellow, Gray, & Blue"

From August 2001:
Much has been made about how Marvel, the “House of Ideas,” focused its big boom creations of the 1960s on accessible characters who were more relatable to readers who might have considered themselves a little more vulnerable than those who’d grown up on the mythic dimensions of DC’s superheroes. And, on a slightly different note, that Jeph Loeb is overrated. Believe it or not, but the latter opinion was not always true. In his heyday, during the late ‘90s and early 2000s, he was arguably the hottest writer in comics. Known for his partnership with artist Tim Sale, Loeb delivered a succession of iconic stories, including BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN, “Hush,” and SUPERMAN: FOR ALL SEASONS. It was around the time of SUPERMAN/BATMAN, actually, the bestselling book of the early millennium that opinions started to shift. Caught in between was a trio of reunion projects for Marvel in which he and Sale took intimate looks at some of the company’s most recognizable characters. Until that point, Loeb had been known as a DC man. He joined the writing team on HEROES (for which Sale also produced distinctive art), starting playing with the Hulk (in red!), and faded more or less into the background of the conversation. (For some reason, his return to filmed entertainment, from which he’d come to produce the masterful CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN MUST DIE! with Sale, signaled not only the end of his popularity, but the beginning of the end of the HEROES phenomenon, too.) The Marvel “color” books (which CAPTAIN AMERICA: WHITE was to continue, until it was aborted) were some of Loeb’s most directed character work, in a career that had dedicated itself to exploring the men behind the masks, as it were, figuring out the narrative thrust as it had been shaped by others (and only sometimes moving it forward). DAREDEVIL: YELLOW, for instance, takes the shape of a letter from Matt Murdock to Karen Page, one of the Man Without Fear’s primary love interests, who became embroiled in the thorny mess of his career, and had been killed off only a few years prior. Our hero (who originally dawned a yellow costume, hence the title) reflects back on his origins, including the fate of his father, his main source of inspiration, a boxer whose career was revived by a thug trying to make money on the sport by fixing contests, with the senior Murdock paying the price for his scruples once he figures out what’s going on. In Loeb’s version, Matt’s already in law school when this goes down, and the subject, at least in this issue, of how he became blind isn’t even relevant. It’s taken for granted that his need for justice leads to a cowl, and it’s not a weakness of Loeb’s so much as the idea that Marvel characters need only one extraordinary circumstance to thrust them into a dangerous and insane career as a superhero. Loeb and Sale can make anything seem like it’s a classic, and it’s a little exhilarating knowing that they get to do what few Marvel creators ever get to do, which is restate an origin and try to make it relevant to new readers. The exercise is like getting a perspective on Daredevil’s whole career. And you’re left to wonder, what would Loeb do if he were writing this character on a regular basis?

HULK: GRAY #s 1 & 6 (Marvel)
From December 2003 & April 2004:
The answer can be extrapolated from Loeb (and Sale)’s work here and in his subsequent Red Hulk work, the long anticipation about who exactly the new Hulk was, something I know bugged a lot of readers to have to wait so long, but something I happily had a look at when it finally happened. I don’t typically read Hulk comics, and the main reason being, other than Bruce Banner’s story, Hulk is really just an idiotic monster who smashes things, meaning that he’s far more interesting from the vantage point of others, or how Banner manages to survive the transformations and actions he can’t control (which is why everyone loved Bruce Jones for that one moment, when he wrote the comics equivalent of the old Lou Ferrigno TV show). Like DAREDEVIL: YELLOW (and the next book), HULK: GRAY follows our lead character as he reflects on the inexplicable love interest whose relationship he is still trying to reconcile years later, in this case Betty Ross, daughter of Hulk and Banner’s arch-nemesis (and, SPOILER, eventual Red Hulk) Thunderbolt Ross. Again, Loeb and Sale are unimpeachable, and fans at the time cherished these comics the same way they did Loeb’s work with DC. The problem is that the stories reflect on the past more than they do the present, which is the only real way Loeb and Sale could have done their stories at Marvel, because that’s what a culture that obsesses over building an artificial sense of continuity has to rely on, and can’t really handle random stories of the past (although to be fair, SUPERMAN: FOR ALL SEASONS was like this, too, and pointedly is not as popular as their other work) that could do the same thing as HULK: GRAY in quite the same way LONG HALLOWEEN did for Batman, crafting a new story along the process of illuminating the past. Even though he still works at Marvel, Loeb does not find these books as perennial trade paperback printings like he does for the work at DC.

SPIDER-MAN: BLUE #s 5-6 (Marvel)
From November 2002 & April 2003:
If there’s one constant source of nostalgia for True Believers, it’s Gwen Stacy, the dead girlfriend who’s lived on for decades in the fond memories of perhaps the same fans who became outraged when Peter and MJ were split up a few years ago. (She can also be seen in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, SPIDER-MAN 3, and yes, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, this summer’s relaunch of the film franchise.) So it was only natural for Loeb and Sale to revisit Gwen in their Spider-Man effort, with much the same framing narrative, of Peter pining over his lost love (today it can be done with Mary Jane!). Of the three projects, this one’s the closest to what they did at DC, since Spider-Man is the closest Marvel has to a DC style hero (even though he’s the prototypical Marvel creation; it’s his inability to actually grow up, even when he does, that keeps him in the realm of characters who by definition are able to deal with their angst, because he does in name only). When grounded by an inner monologue, Peter Parker is able to seem more mature, more cerebral than his typical manic portrayal allows, making this a book that should serve as an example and counterpoint to his usual depiction, and, as LONG HALLOWEEN was for Christopher Nolan’s Batman, a good gateway for fans interested in seeing how Andrew Garfield will deal with great power and responsibility.

If you want to know the influence of Jeph Loeb (and Tim Sale), that’s all you need to know. The material is there. Sometimes talent needs to be rediscovered to be appreciated.