Monday, November 25, 2013

My All-time Favorite Comic Books, 10-1

The final countdown...!

#10. Geoff Johns's Green Lantern

Creators: Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, various
Publication dates: 2004-2013
Issues: Green Lantern: Rebirth 1-6, Green Lantern 1-67, 0-20, Blackest Night 1-8

Green Lantern was already my favorite comic book franchise when Johns strolled into the story in 2004.  I thought I already had my definitive era in Ron Marz's Kyle Rayner.  Then Johns brought Hal Jordan back, and exploded the whole mythology.  I mean, literally, he took the basic building blocks and figured out the best possible expansion, and led the whole thing to its greatest heights.  It's the epitome of creative storytelling, the single best innovative run in superhero comic book history, one that will continue to be felt for years. I mean, even Larfleeze has gotten his own ongoing series now.  Larfleeze!  How awesome is that?  Saint Walker made it into the pre-New 52 Justice League, the Red Lanterns have had their own series since the DC relaunch, and Johns has made a strong case for a Sinestro series.  No one would have ever thought that possible before 2004.  That's the definition of a substantial legacy.

#9. Air

Creators: G. Willow Wilson, M.K. Perker
Publication dates: 2008-2010
Issues: 1-24

Along with 52 part of a very select group to top my annual QB50 list twice, Air was an unabashed obsession of mine throughout its publication, even though it struggled to find an audience that did not have the name "Tony Laplume."  But it was brilliant, typical of the Vertigo breed in having a distinct and imaginative mythology, but atypical in its intimate approach, like Sandman without all the Goth touches.  G. Willow Wilson managed to spin a conspiracy and hero journey into one yarn.  The closest proximity I've found since was the similarly short-lived Saucer Country.  As with most of my selections, widely deserves a much larger audience.

#8. Cobra

Creators: Mike Costa, Antonio Fuso, Christos Gage
Publication dates: 2009-2013
Issues: 1-4, Special 1-2, 1-13, 1-21, The Cobra Files 1-9

This is basically everything I loved about Superboy and the Ravers, The Great Ten, Seven Soldiers of Victory, and Young Avengers in a nonsuperhero title, and surprisingly with another famous franchise it managed to totally reinvent from the outset, featuring an obscure Joe named Chuckles in the mission of his life, a reboot timeline where Cobra is just being discovered.  And from there, it's basically the Assange/Snowden/NSA era well before any of those scandals broke, one brilliant bit of character exploration after another in a world of paranoia and secrets, an unexpected phenomenon publisher IDW never expected, assuming it had merely a good mini-series when it acquired G.I. Joe in 2008, leading to a series of extensions that eventually transformed the whole line with the sensational death of Cobra Commander.  You don't need to know or care about the franchise to love this saga.  You just need to love great comics.

#7. Sandman

Creators: Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, various
Publication dates: 1989-1996
Issues: 1-75

For simplicity's sake I'm sticking to the original series rather than also include subsequent additional materials, such as the recently-launched Sandman Overture mini-series.  Simply put, this one needs no introduction.  It's perhaps the most literary comic book ever published, filled with classical elements and one of the best-known mythologies outside of superheroes ever created.  It's a masterpiece.  Move along, move along.

#6. Bone

Creators: Jeff Smith
Publication dates: 1991-2004
Issues: 1-55

This one I owe entirely to a friend who was obsessed with it.  For a while, there was a very small cult audience obsessed with it.  And it expanded, thanks to word of mouth.  It started making in-roads to full-blown mainstream awareness.  There was talk of a movie.  All of this is for good reason.  Like a cartoon strip wedded perfectly to epic fantasy (such as you would never have believed possible until Bone), Jeff Smith's vision was a dream come to life, so popular Image for a while took over publication, until it went back to Smith's own company, where it completed its epic journey, only to be reborn in a series of reprints, where its legacy (as I've been hoping throughout this list for many other series) has grown.  Oh, and because it's my favorite phrase from Bone: stupid, stupid rat creatures...

#5. Wasteland

Creators: Antony Johnston, Christopher Mitten, Justin Greenwood
Publication dates: 2006-2014
Issues: 1-60

I've attempted for years to be an ambassador to this series, a classic post-apocalyptic yarn that explodes the genre into a startlingly rich landscape filled with intricate relationships between isolated figures.  Unlike The Walking Dead, Wasteland has made the riddle of what created the world after the Big Wet the whole point, except it's taken the whole journey to reach it.  In the meantime social politics have defined the story, especially the betrayals at the heart of life in Newbegin, the perfect representation of civilization after civilization's end.  My favorite character remains Michael, a sort of Wolverine if Wolverine had never joined the X-Men.

#4. 52

Creators: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Keith Giffen, various
Publication dates: 2006-2007
Issues: 1-52

DC's first weekly series in years, an ambitious effort to put out a new issue every week for a year, could have been its riskiest gamble ever.  Instead it turned out to be a stroke of genius, one of the best single comics it ever put out, following a hodgepodge of characters who could never have been mistaken for the mainstream (although some of them, including Booster Gold and the new Batwoman, received their own ongoing series as a result) as they embark on the greatest stories of their careers, including the Elongated Man's long-awaited response to Identity Crisis and Black Adam's shot at redemption.  The league of creators who wrote it remains a who's who, and to my mind in no small part to their participation in this book.  The company's later attempts to duplicate this remarkable accomplishment never seemed to capture the same interest from the fans, but that's to be expected, although I would highly recommend Countdown, while the bi-weekly Brightest Day is another winner.

#3. The Death of Captain Marvel

Creators: Jim Starlin
Publication date: 1982
Issues: [graphic novel]

This is the comic book that made me a fan of comic books, and it is also among the first I ever read, and completely by accident, something my sister had randomly come across and I stole a look, and no joking, I was changed forever.  The death of any comic book character wasn't as common in 1982 as it is today, and the true testament of this event is that Captain Marvel remains respectfully deceased.  It's a surreal, literary exploration and epitaph for a character who was never really that popular but whose legacy was instantly cemented by this effort.  What more could you ask for?

#2. Kingdom Come

Creators: Mark Waid, Alex Ross
Publication dates: 1996
Issues: 1-4

You might notice that I love my comics to be literary, and no superhero comic was ever more literary, not to mention seminal in my own creative development, than this landmark event that peered into the future of DC's icons and saw nothing good.  Lois Lane dead.  Superman forced into retirement.  The next generation, led by Magog, the reverse of everything that had come before them.  Narrated by a simple preacher and steeped in religious imagery (this is the secret origin of my obsession with the number 7, and why I subsequently adopted the term "seven thunders" from the Book of Revelations for what I always assumed must be my own magnum opus, because it was used in the previews for Kingdom Come), this was both creators at their absolute finest.  One of them ended up chasing this achievement for years (Ross) while the other only occasionally revisited it (Waid, in The Kingdom event that was as close to Seven Soldiers of Victory as DC ever got before Grant Morrison), while Geoff Johns famously brought it all back in the pages of his Justice Society of America.  Even Magog eventually entered the regular canon and had an ongoing series.  Often seen as DC's response to Marvels, it is more accurately seen in its own distinctive light, which is ultimately a more hopeful version of The Dark Knight Returns, taken on the grand scale.

#1. "The Return of Barry Allen"

Creators: Mark Waid, Greg LaRocque
Publication dates: 1993
Issues: The Flash 74-79

I choose to include only one storyline from Mark Waid's extended run on The Flash for a specific reason, because it was the earliest and best example of the whole thing, which often lived up to its potential and sometimes didn't (and the best of it wasn't even in the pages of The Flash but rather Impulse), so it's better to remember what remains the most memorable than complicate matters.  Because "The Return of Barry Allen" is most certainly the best of it.  And for the record, it doesn't even feature Barry Allen.  This was years before Barry came back.  The Flash throughout Waid's run was Wally West ("and I'm the Fastest Man Alive"), the third speedster to carry the name, and he was keenly aware of the whole mythology, which before Geoff Johns on Green Lantern, Waid was the first to attempt a wholesale expansion, introducing the concept of the Speed Force and old as well as new faces to the family, including my personal favorite, Max Mercury, the Zen Master of Speed.  If there is any weakening to this legacy, it's perhaps that even Waid seemed to let it slip by the wayside after a while, perhaps after "Dead Heat" (acknowledged within the pages of Johns's The Flash: Rebirth with a cameo by the villain Savitar), while Johns himself in two separate runs (with Wally and Barry) went in different directions.  Better, again, to remember it at its most pure, most perfect, most serene, most effective, when it's Wally struggling with his role in the grand scheme of things.  James Robinson would later take the same basic concept to similar heights in the pages of Starman, but has no comparable single storyline to this one.  This is the one, if you love superheroes and their legacies, that you have to read.  This is the love letter of all love letters to the whole phenomenon.

(All covers via Comic Book Database.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

My All-time Favorite Comic Books, 15-11

The list continues!

#15. Grant Morrison's Batman

Creators: Grant Morrison, Andy Kubert, Tony Daniel, Chris Burnham, various
Publication dates: 2006-2013
Issues: Batman 655-658, 663-683, 700-702, Batman and Robin 1-16, The Return of Brice Wayne 1-6, Batman Incorporated 1-8, Leviathan Strikes!, Batman Incorporated 0-10, 12-13

Morrison's epic vision of the Dark Knight is best defined by the Damian arc, the introduction of the first Robin to actually be the son of Batman.  He's explained that the two major villains of this run, Doctor Hurt and Talia, Damian's mother and Bruce Wayne's one-time lover, not to mention daughter of Ra's al Ghul, are father and mother figures for the hero best known for a tragic secret origin concerning the deaths of his parents.  A new defining mark for a comprehensive understanding of Batman mythos, these stories are a true test of all the Caped Crusader's most cherished beliefs, and a stark commentary on his legacy.  I would have ranked the run higher on the list, except I've been struggling with how it ended, and while I've come out the back end in a soundly positive way recently, I think I still need to read through the whole thing again for a proper final appreciation.  There are three distinctive acts to be explored, the events leading up to "R.I.P.," which involve Doctor Hurt; the Batman and Robin era, which feature Dick Grayson under the cowl and a heavy focus on Damian; and the Batman Incorporated era, which features a whole league of new allies and the final reckoning of Damian.  It's possible to be a partisan of any one of these, and that's the real trick, because sometimes I think I prefer the first the best, and other times I'm convinced the other two are equal contenders.  But as a whole?  As with anything else Morrison does, it's epic ambition beyond any ordinary scope.

#14. Seven Soldiers of Victory

Creators: Grant Morrison, various
Publication dates: 2005-2006
Issues: Seven Soldiers of Victory 0-1, Bulleteer 1-4, Frankenstein 1-4, Guardian 1-4, Klarion the Witch Boy 1-4, Mister Miracle 1-4, Shining Knight 1-4, Zatanna 1-4

The only thing more ambitious than Grant Morrison's Batman is his Seven Soldiers of Victory, the last sprawling effort of his on this list (but not last project; he dominates with five out of the twenty-five selections, plus a share in a sixth; his closest competitors are half that, although one of them has the top two slots and another shared listing in the top five, being Mark Waid, while Geoff Johns is the other).  Simply put, this project was breathtaking, and the reason I became a devoted fan of Morrison's.  An innovative look at the superhero staple of the team book, this was a team that did not actually operate as a team throughout the majority of the story, instead leading their own separate but linked adventures.  The biggest strength was that Morrison was able to demonstrate the full range of his talent, as no two characters in this line-up were the same type.  His Frankenstein elevated the character so far that it resulted in a New 52 ongoing series that lasted for sixteen issues, while his Shining Knight led in part to Demon Knights.  Just an incredible creative achievement, something no other single creator could have pulled off, or probably even considered.

#13. The Great Ten

Creators: Tony Bedard, Scott McDaniel
Publication dates: 2010
Issues: 1-9

This remains one of my most treasured undiscovered masterpieces.  You can tell that it was underappreciated from the start, considering the name of the team and book, and the fact that the issue count was reduced by one while it was still being published, and what a dirty shame.  This is Bedard and McDaniel achieving what Grant Morrison did in Seven Soldiers on an issue-by-issue basis, brilliant character studies of superheroes with extremely limited exposure prior to the series.  If there is a lasting testament to the work accomplished here, it's August General in Iron's later appearances in the New 52 series Justice League International.  If it were up to me, there would already be a collected edition of this, and it would be a perennial bestseller.  Easily, easily one of the best comics I've ever read.

#12. Joe the Barbarian

Creators: Grant Morrison, Sean Murphy
Publication dates: 2010-2011
Issues: 1-8

The last of the solo Morrison projects (there would have been at least one in the top ten if I hadn't had so many competing favorites), and a story that as I was reading it wondered if it wouldn't read better as a whole than in installments, and as time passed I realized I was probably right about that.  I appreciate Joe more and more.  It's Morrison at his finest, employing the full range of his wild imagination but in an entirely approachable way (which is not always the case), the simplistic promise of We3 wedded with the best of his superhero stories.  This is truly a modern fairy tale, a fable in the tradition of the great 19th century achievements that is also uniquely its own, and for this creator a remarkably brief yet still expansive adventure.  It's everything it needs to be.  I believe, more than any other comic in this list, Joe the Barbarian has a long road ahead of it.  I don't think it will be forgotten soon, and in fact will become more and more fondly remembered the more people become aware of it.

#11. Superboy and the Ravers

Creators: Karl Kesel, Steve Mattsson, Paul Pelletier, Josh Hood
Publication dates: 1996-1998)
Issues: 1-19

90s comics were known for a number of things, but two of the prevailing trends that came to define it were bad girl comics and a renaissance of the teenage hero.  DC exploited the latter trend just as much as anyone else, and I think the happiest development was this perennially underrated gem, Superboy's second ongoing series for a few years.  It remains a touchstone, and a treasured favorite memory.  Everything I would later come to love about Seven Soldiers of Victory and The Great Ten were already well on their way to perfection in the nearly twenty issues of Superboy and the Ravers.  Beyond Superboy the rest of the cast became some of the best defined characters in all of comics: Sparx (the best of the Bloodlines generation), Aura, Half-Life (that's the grim-looking dude on the cover), Kaliber (perhaps the best single creation of the whole thing, and a featured player in John Byrne's Genesis), Hero, Rex the Wonder Dog, Kindred Marx, and even someone called the Flying Buttress.  Desperately deserves a big fat collected edition, needs to be remembered as the landmark series that it was.

(All covers via Comic Book Database.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My All-time Favorite Comic Books, 20-16

Continuing my list:

#20. Grant Morrison's JLA

Creators: Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, Frank Quitely, various
Publication dates: 1997-2005
Issues: 1-17, 22-31, 34, 36-41, JLA: Earth 2, JLA Classified 1-3, One Million 1-4

The seminal point of 1990s DC comics where the icons started acting like icons again, setting the stage for how they would be uniformly depicted at the start of the new millennium, bringing together all the big guns back to the Justice League after years of second-stringer line-ups, arguably setting up the whole career of Geoff Johns.  This was Grant Morrison's version of the mainstream following notable runs in various Vertigo reinterpretations of heroes he was perhaps dooming once more to obscurity.  And he went big.  Every story an event.  The standout for me remains the "Rock of Ages" arc that reads like a preview of Morrison's later Final Crisis, with the particular highlight of #13, the "Darkseid Is" issue, one of the greatest scripts he ever wrote.  The sheer amount of imagination on display here, from the throwaway breakout character Tomorrow Woman to the Hawkman stand-in Zauriel who introduced an important piece of Morrison's mythology to the Ultramarine Corps and even Prometheus, one of the most important new villains of the past twenty years, and all the way to One Million, a vision of the future, there's so much to love here.  Needs reminding.

#19. Flashpoint

Creators: Geoff Johns, Andy Kubert
Publication dates: 2011
Issues: 1-5

The importance of this mini-series event in my personal comics experience cannot be overstated.  For a lot of fans, it became the gimmicky story that allowed DC to recreate its entire line-up from scratch with the New 52, but for me, it was a flashpoint of a different kind entirely.  (There's another Flashpoint, by the way, 1999's version from Pat McGreal and Norm Breyfogle, totally unrelated but perhaps equally worthy of inclusion on this list.)  I tend to like DC's alternate realities.  The Tangent experiment was for a long time a particular touchstone.  What sets this one apart is its clear emphasis on reflecting directly on known characteristics by turning them just a degree on their side rather than wholesale revision.  Most famously there was the Thomas Wayne Batman, who helps inform the story's emotional conclusion.  But it's really a story about Barry Allen, Geoff Johns' Barry Allen, a character he brought back in the same manner he'd done for Hal Jordan seven years earlier.  But he had this big story waiting for Barry, a piercing character study unlike any other crossover event before or since.  And I found what I've so far experienced of the spin-off books to be equally inspired.  I still intend to read through them all, but for now, the core title itself is more than enough to cement its place in my appreciation.  I was about to walk away from comics forever, half out of necessity and half because I'd lost my love for them.  And then this happened and reminded me about all the magic possible in the stories of costumes adventurers.

#18. Chuck Dixon and Devin K. Grayson's Nightwing

Creators: Chuck Dixon, Devin K. Grayson, Scott McDaniel, various
Publication dates: 1996-2006
Issues: 1-70, 101-106, 1,000,000 (Dixon), 71-100, 107-117, Nightwing and Huntress 1-4 (Grayson)

People like to make the comparison anyway, and it's a little easy in some regards, so let's go out and just say it: Dixon and Grayson's epic Nightwing saga was DC's answer to Frank Miller's classic Daredevil story about Elektra and the Kingpin.  Nightwing had Tarantula and Blockbuster.  It remains the longest and best Dick Grayson story ever attempted, creating an independent legacy for the first Robin's transition into his own man, and in some ways an impossible story to follow.  Many writers have tried, using some of the same basic elements, key among them being a relocation away from Gotham City, out from the shadow of Batman.  Dixon got the ball rolling with the introduction of a whole supporting cast, a battery of villainous foes to call Nightwing's own, most of them revolving around the auspices of Blockbuster, whose tragedy was that his moment of glory was interrupted by a health crisis.  Grayson picked up the ball and introduced Tarantula, a femme fatale who gave Nightwing his own Terra, and then plunged the hero into still murkier waters, which in some ways is also being revisited today.  It's unthinkable that one creator would follow another and not only complete their story but do it in such a fashion that not only remains controversial but elevated it to operatic proportions.  But that's what happened here.  The likes of which will probably never be seen again.

#17. Grant Morrison's Action Comics

Creators: Grant Morrison, Rags Morales
Publication dates: 2011-2013
Issues: 0-18

Morrison's All Star Superman was immediately recognized as its own kind of classic, depicting a version of the Man of Steel that spoke to the whole legacy of the character in much the way he would also do for Batman.  Yet his New 52 revamp may yet prove to be the more definitive.  Borrowing elements introduced by Geoff Johns in a different era of Action Comics, Morrison's Superman was a god among men struggling to be human and superhuman at the same time, drawing all manner of outrageous individuals towards him in the process, including the Legion of Super-heroes, Mxyzptlk, and a boy who stole his cape (the story in the 0 issue), plus one exceptional alternate reality (#9) that proves he can write a great Superman no matter the circumstances.  The ending should be viewed as a classic in its own right, how it turns into just another fight for the character who can sometimes be considered too powerful for his own good.  Morrison gets that, but that's nothing but an afterthought for someone who truly understands Superman.

#16. Stuart Immonen's Superman

Creators: Stuart Immonen, Karl Kesel, Mark Waid
Publication dates: 1994-2004
Issues: (as writer/artist) Adventures of Superman 530, 534, 573-577, Action Comics 738-748, 750-753, 758, Alpha Centurion Special Special 1, Superman: End of the Century, (as artist) The Final Night 1-4, Superman: Secret Identity 1-4

Here's a sorely overlooked milestone of the 1990s Superman comics, and to my mind the single best run.  There are a number of other issues where Immonen provided solely the art, but for my purposes here I'll stick with the ones he wrote and drew, because his talent in this dual capacity should be emphasized all the more for the reason that it's been overlooked since, plus two key projects where he provided only the art.  Simply put, Immonen's Superman was iconic simplicity, the exact opposite of everything the '90s are known for.  He also best depicted the Man of Steel's continuing fight against Lex Luthor, not the Luthor who was a red-haired clone of himself but one who formed his own budding supporting cast, including the since-forgotten Contessa, the only equal the criminal genius ever knew.  These are not only some of the best Superman comics, then, but some of the best Lex Luthor stories ever, highlighted by the brilliant Action Comics #741, in which Immonen juxtaposes the classic narrative of Chanticleer from The Canterbury Tales with Luthor's relationship to his infant daughter (another tragic lost element from this period).  It didn't matter which version of the 90s Superman was featured, whether it was Electric Superman, Mullet Superman, or Classic Superman, Immonen aced them all.  The Final Night remains one of the most unique event books ever in huge part to Immonen's art.  Until All-New X-Men he's never found a project nearly as worthy of his talents.

(All covers via Comic Book Database.)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

My All-time Favorite Comic Books, 25-21

Every comic book reader worth their salt has a list of their favorite comics, the ones they treasure the most and most recommend to new and fellow readers.  Here's mine:

#25. Spider-Man Reign
Creators: Kaare Andrews
Publication dates: 2007
Issues: 1-4

This is my personal favorite version of The Dark Knight Returns, one of the most famous Batman stories ever told.  Marvel was a little slow to respond to it, but along with the excellent Wolverine story arc "Old Man Logan," it was easily Spider-Man Reign that finally rose to the challenge.  Where Reign trumps DKR is its ability to capture the essential message of the lead character in a way that goes backward and forward.  In the future, Peter Parker is an old man who once more dons his costume to battle an insidious plot to enslave all of New York City.  It's the quintessential "pathetic loner" Spider-Man story, told evocatively and sparsely, featuring most of the familiar supporting cast although each of them in surprising ways.  When you picture Spider-Man you usually have the wise-cracker in mind, but far more deep to the core is a guy who has never fit in and never quite got over that feeling of exclusion.  That's what this story is all about, how the story ends for one of the greatest heroes ever.

#24. Mister X

Creators: Dean Motter
Publication dates: 1984-present
Issues: 1-14, Brides of Mister X, Condemned, Eviction, Hard Candy

One of the greatest comic book characters I've ever read isn't a superhero, but rather Dean Motter's archetypal retro-futurist creation, the reclusive Mister X, originally published by Vortex Comics but by increasing demand finally staging a comeback at Dark Horse with new graphic novel releases every few years.  Along with Motter has been a number of other creators who have helped shape one of the most breathtaking artistic achievements in comics history, comparable to Will Eisner's more famous Spirit, creating an impact that's still only beginning to be felt.

#23. Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason's Batman and Robin

Creators: Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason
Publication dates: 2011-present
Issues: Batman and Robin Vol. 1 20-22, Vol. 2 0-present

I've been increasingly impressed with this dynamic duo, who first came together for Green Lantern Corps and were later again paired together in the pages of Brightest Day.  Yet it's in Batman and Robin where Tomasi and Gleason have truly peaked (so far), creating a book that's almost a companion to contemporary Batman lore, offering the best commentaries on current storylines while also immersing themselves in the private lives of Bruce Wayne and his son Damian.  Key issues include #0 (Damian's origin) and 23 (a perfect eulogy to Damian's death).  Bucking every expectation, this has the potential to climb much higher.  Or Tomasi and Gleason can somehow top themselves in a different collaboration entirely.

#22. Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung's Young Avengers

Creators: Allan Heinberg, Jim Cheung
Publication dates: 2005-2012
Issues: 1-12, Avengers: The Children's Crusade 1-9

To my mind still the most perfect of the monthly depictions of the Marvel universe, even if it lasted for one year and then years later for a reprise about as long.  Heinberg took the Infinity Inc. formula of looking at how the next generation of famous archetypes would perform (a thing Marvel had tried before in things like M2 and 2099) and perfected it, with an entire bumper crop of characters with the same angst as the '60s boom generation and all the room to explore and grow as their story continued.  Children's Crusade remains inexplicably underrated, even though it was the sequel to House of M years in the making and completely unexpected, as well as a natural sequel to Heinberg and Cheung's original run.

#21. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Challengers of the Unknown

Creators: Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale
Publication dates: 1991
Issues: 1-8

Later collected under the title Challengers of the Unknown Must Die!, this is Loeb and Sale's earliest and to my mind best collaboration, a complete deconstruction of the superhero narrative in a way Watchmen could only dream, literary and therefore mostly untouchable to anyone expecting traditional material.  And the fact that it features a group of undiscovered icons makes it all the better.

(All covers via Comic Book Database.)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reading Comics #115 "The Dark Knight Falls - The End of Grant Morrison's Batman"

This post about the end of Grant Morrison's Batman, or more specifically his second run on Batman Incorporated, is months behind the fact mostly for one reason:

I didn't like how it ended.

In case you haven't read or heard about that, Batman Incorporated #13 basically ends on a cliffhanger, the return of Ra's al Ghul.  A cliffhanger, really?  After seven years?  So that was basically my reaction.  I was disappointed.  Here was the conclusion of a great comics run within an iconic character and arguably the best writer of this generation.  And it wasn't really a conclusion at all.

Or so it seemed.

Morrison had warned readers that they probably wouldn't be happy, that they wouldn't be pleased with the conclusion he ultimately reached about Batman.  And I guess I just failed to understand what he meant.  Part of the problem was Chris Burnham's art.  Burnham was on the title since its relaunch in the wake of the New 52.  It was immediately evocative of Frank Miller's work from The Dark Knight Returns, just as Greg Capullo has been in Scott Snyder's Batman.  But whereas Capullo took the challenge seriously, Burnham's always looked like a parody.  Great on Damian.  Not so much Batman.

But maybe that was the point.

Morrison's conclusion, as I'm now interpreting it, may have been very pointedly the opposite of Miller's Dark Knight Returns philosophy.  Miller envisioned Batman as an eternal warrior, impossible to defeat, even if the enemy is old age and retirement.  His is an ultimately triumphal story for the character, trumping even Superman himself.  Morrison seems to have said something differently entirely.

To reach Ra's al Ghul, to reach his return, Morrison used every other key member of the family, who at this point were as close to a family as they ever got.  Batman the father, Damian the son, Talia the mother.  Batman and Talia finally duel, with Damian caught quite literally in the cross-hairs, as exemplified in the best issue of the series, Batman Incorporated #8, the latest Death of Robin event.  The war doesn't end until the series does, however.

And what the was the ultimate shape of this war?  Batman creates the eponymous league of allies to combat Talia's Leviathan, its equal and opposite.  And the orouboros finally eats its own tail.  Batman's grand crusade becomes cyclical, even with a brand-new version of the "I shall become a bat!" epiphany.  The allies cancel each other out.  The would-be lovers reach their end at last, the dance concludes.  Batman does not win.

Batman doesn't win???  Batman doesn't win.

Let me say it again.  Batman doesn't win.  That's not at all what Miller prophesied.  Morrison came up in the comics scene in the midst of Batman's biggest creative boom.  There was Miller, Morrison himself (the psychological masterpiece Arkham Asylum), and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, with Morrison recently chiming in on the theory that Batman actually kills Joker at the end of it.  Is he right about that?  It doesn't matter.  But it opens the door wide about what he really sees as the conclusion of the Batman story.

He doesn't see it ending ideally.  He doesn't see the Dark Knight rising.  He sees Batman fall.  This whole epic run has been The Dark Knight Falls all along.

He said he'd put all the toys back in the toy box.  The Incorporated allies are pretty much gone.  Damian is dead.  Talia is defeated.  And other writers continue Batman's never-ending quest for vengeance against crime.

But he's already indicated how he sees it will end.  The only way it can end.  Whether he's an old man or in his prime, Batman doesn't win.  And so he defeats his ultimate foe in the epic of all epics, and another villain just rises up to fill in the hole again.

This whole thing reminds me of the few issues he did after the fact following "R.I.P.," the last time we thought Morrison had concluded his Batman epic.  In Batman #s 701 and 702, he explains the missing pieces, the hole in things, between the events of "R.I.P." and Final Crisis, where Batman "dies."  They may be the finest issues he ever wrote in his Batman run.

Part of me is hoping he does something similar as a coda to Batman Incorporated, make his reasoning plain, explain the whole master plan.  It's not likely.  The one trademark of all Grant Morrison's stories is that he never spells them out.

Did I interpret it right?  At any rate, I'm feeling far better about that ending now than a few months ago.  Even if it doesn't paint Batman in the most flattering light.  But then, maybe that was the point.  Maybe Morrison was seeking to end the hero worship for a character who can be just as easily interpreted as a deviant and positively deranged as the ideal superhero who can overcome every obstacle.  He did that in Morrison's epic and still lost.  Maybe the cliffhanger itself is the message.  Or maybe it was no cliffhanger at all.

We've gotten a lot of good from this run.  We got Paul Cornell's Knight and Squire.  We got Andy Kubert's Damian.  We got Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason's Batman and Robin.  And more.  And hopefully more.  And perhaps the definitive Batman story yet.

All of this is to say, thank you Grant Morrison.