Jason’s Things to be Thankful for in 2008

Nov-25-08

Okay, now it’s my turn. This took a bit of research for me and the results are still kind of nebulous. My problem is that I have so many trades and books and magazines and single issues lying around that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. That makes it hard for me to figure out what actually came out in 2008 and what came out two years ago but only has a thin layer of dust on it because my wife likes to clean.

It’s actually quite sad how big my “to read’ list pile is.

Anyway, here are 10 things that stood out for me in 2008. No real rhyme or reason to the numbering. Hell, there’s no real rhyme or reason to the reasoning either! (I’ll copy Jason’s format and just insert my comments right after his.)  Just sit back and pretend that I know what I’m talking about. I’m thankful for:

1. Kirby: King of Comics – The basic truth behind this pick is that you’re either a Kirby fan or you’re not (or, in my case, you weren’t a fan but learned to be one). However, regardless of your feelings about the man’s style, the book is an excellent biography of a person who was never fully appreciated even though his comic output was tremendous and his influence is primarily responsible for the books you read today. There are some great pieces inside that show a truly different style to the square-jawed faces everyone is familiar with too. As an honorable mention in the biography/art book category, I’d also mention Paul Pope’s Pulphope (which came out in 2007 but I haven’t gotten around to reading yet) and Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (which I haven’t bought yet but hear many good things about).

Three artists who I can appreciate in the abstract, but can’t love in the reality.  However, as I’ve probably stated before on the blog, I’m more of a follower of writers than artists anyway (yes, I know, all three also write comics, but these books focus more, I believe, on their artistic talent).

2. Northlanders – A couple years ago, when I still had my store and ran a blog about it, I posed the question, “What would be the next big thing?” At the time, both zombies and pirates (and probably pirate zombies) were at the height of their respective popularities, robots were still going strong and ninjas were making a resurgence. I threw out the notion that vikings would make their mark next. Turns out I was right! Brian Wood has managed to craft a gritty world relatively free from the stereotypical horn-headed, mead-swilling, “thee” and “yon” spouting heathens and replete with anti-heroes who value honor over conquest, payback over duty. He uses modern language (earmuff the kids if you’re reading out loud) to paint what can only be described as “the ‘hood” of medieval Scandinavia. Couple this series with the also excellent DMZ trades and you get a pretty grim, yet entertaining, picture of the “real” world both past and present. Almost makes you want to go outside and hug someone. Almost.

I have heard good things, but this hasn’t made my list of books to read yet.  Actually, despite the buzz about Brian Wood, I’ve not yet read anything he’s written.  My bad.  I’ll put that on my to do list for 2009.

3. Criminal – Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips continue their magical partnership. The third volume of this creator-owned series came out in 2008. No one writes better double-crossing, in it for themselves characters than Brubaker. He has the Midas touch when it comes to crime comics. Whether the storylines deal with good people caught in bad situations or dastardly types struggling to redeem themselves in a world that continues to beat them down, his work is aces. And Phillips’ line work gives it all the requisite rough-and-tumble look it needs. These people are dirty, they’re raw and they’re either in trouble or looking for it.

My scintillating commentary continues, as I can again say I’ve never read this.  However, this is on my Christmas list, and I’m hoping the big red guy comes through for me (don’t let me down Hellboy)!

4. Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil – While we’re on the topic of Ed Brubaker, we may as well talk about Daredevil too. I’ve followed Daredevil on and off through the years…yes for Miller, no for Nocenti…but no one has been able to truly capture the underlying angst and tension that Matt Murdock seems to find himself in the center of. Brubaker is able to show that Daredevil is merely the lens that we witness all of these horrible people through. For the past few years, things have been happening to Daredevil that seem like payback for the years of heroic work he did. Nothing is going right and nothing is getting better, and that’s what makes it so much fun to read.

5. The end of the Brubaker/Fraction Immortal Iron Fist run – Can you tell that I enjoyed Brubaker’s work this year? I know it’s kind of strange to praise the end of a run that you’ve enjoyed so much, but I have my reasons. In less than two years, Ed and Matt managed to create a whole new world for the Iron Fist character…they added a lineage with vibrant back stories, a stable of allies and adversaries that gives a much needed depth, and managed to inject a light humor into the serious business of karate chops and glowing chi dragons. I praise the end of their run because it ended on a high note. I didn’t start to get bored. I wasn’t second guessing any of their decisions. Basically, they left me wanting more, which is always a good thing.

6. Scott Pilgrim – Technically, Volume 4 came out in November 2007 and Volume 5 isn’t due until February 2009, but that’s reason enough to mention these little bundles of excellence. Bryan O’Malley combines the perfect amount of videogaming and pop culture references to this romantic comedy wrapped up in a loose manga influence. You really can’t go wrong with a book that caters to everyone at once and yet no one in particular. There’s something for every boy and girl to enjoy!

While I love me some Ed Brubaker (as I mentioned on my own list of things to be thankful for, when I singled out his commitment to Captain America), I didn’t have much to say about the last two entries.  Partly because I haven’t read them, but also because….ok, it’s entirely because I haven’t read them.  However, I have to give a shout out to Scott Pilgrim!  I am absolutely in love with this series, which helped to restore my faith in comics when I read the first book.  I had read some really awful books, and hadn’t stumbled upon anything new in sometime that had really spoken to me, and this book knocked my right on my tuchus (in a good way).  I breathlessly await the new volume in 2009!

7. I Luv Halloween, Ultimate Twisted Edition – Here’s another quasi-mangaesque gem that combines three separate black-and-white volumes into a full-color hardcover edition with bunches of extras and artwork. Ben Roman’s cartoony style adds a touch of whimsy to Keith Giffen’s otherwise gruesome tale of trick-or-treating kids awash in a sea of zombies and suffering. Goofy things happen by circumstance. A kid who may or may not actually be the Devil shows up. And there are entrails and screaming galore. Fun read. And can be used as a formidable weapon too.

I have never even heard of this.  I feel so uncool.  I tend to think of myself as quite up to date on the world of four color (and one color) funnybooks, and this is completely off my radar.  I’ll have to do some research myself.

8. Comic Foundry – As a gross generalization, useful comics journalism sucks. The Comics Journal tries too hard and Wizard doesn’t try at all. I’m happy that there’s finally a happy medium that relies on neither fart jokes nor lengthy snobbery to get its point across effectively. Tim Leong puts together a solid magazine. My only complaint is that it doesn’t come out often enough!

9. City Cyclops – There are a few webcomics that I delve into on a semi-regular basis. I’m a pretty avid reader of Penny Arcade. I used to follow PvP for a few years. And I’m catching up on Order of the Stick. But when I want a solid dose of awkward and surreal superheroes, I make a beeline to the home of Jon Adams’ Truth Serum series. He slyly incorporates current events into the three-panel examinations of these sad sack “heroes” and “villains” who spend more time griping about their living conditions than they do actually fixing anything. Always good for a pondering chuckle. And his Lonely Parade collection is the sharpest political satire set against the world of superheroes that I have ever read.

I echo the sentiments on Truth Serum, a truly amusing series.  However, I want to single out Order of the Stick, which you mentioned, and recommend it to everyone.  It’s a great comic.  The first 10-20 installments may lead you to believe that it’s just a vehicle to do jokes about D&D, and that’s an understandable impression.  Give the strip some time though, and you’ll find that the characters have actual personalities, that a huge, sprawling world is unfolding before your eyes, and that the strip doesn’t just go for the punchline; it’s telling a story, and some of the strips aren’t funny, but are actually touching.  This strip is much more than it might appear at first, and I encourage everyone to give it a try.

10. Other stuff – Yeah, that’s not very specific, is it? What is this “stuff” I’m talking about? Well, it’s a nebulous collection of odds and ends that I’m proud of…from my conversational connections to certain creators and comic professionals, to the confusing attention our blog received because of a similarly named award nominee, to the way John and I interact with each other online, to the fact that my Amazon wishlist is filled with more and more independent comic collections and experimental artwork than ever before. There’s a lot out there to appreciate in comics. I like to toss the snark probably more often than necessary, because a good chunk of what we’ve cherished over the years has been turned into much buffoonery and heavy-handedness. However, I’m always willing to try new and different offerings in the hopes that I can recapture the feeling I had when I first opened a comic book and was sucked in by something wonderful. Every time it happens, I feel like a kid again.

That’s what I’m truly thankful for.

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Jason’s 20 Things Every Superhero Comic Collection Needs

Oct-14-08

We wanted to slap together some sort of mainstream answer to Tom Spurgeon’s “50 Things Every Great Comics Collection Needs to Have” post. Of course, considering we only really cover the superhero side of things, we’ll have to tweak our responses appropriately. I’m going to throw out 20 items and John is going to throw out 20 items. There will be similarities and, I’m sure, there will be big differences between our two lists.

I’ve been reading comics since around 1976. I’ve been seriously collecting them since 1984. And I have every major book and biography written about the superhero comics and their creators. I figure that gives me a fair understanding of the genre and its history. Granted, my particular likes and dislikes are going to color any list I could come up with, but I’ve tried to limit the fanboy in me to only a few of the choices.

What you’ll probably notice immediately is that I didn’t include Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns. If I were to put a list of 50 together, I’m sure those two would’ve squeaked onto the list. Honestly, I just don’t think they hold up as well these days. Both books are products of their time, wrapped in a certain political scene and tied to the emotions and ennui of the era. And I didn’t read either of them when they first came out. In fact, I just read them both in 2001…along with Crisis on Infinite Earths and Kingdom Come (which are also not on my list). I’ve never read Miracleman either, but I’ve heard good things. It might’ve made the list, if I had access to it. Perhaps we should do an entry on the “Top Storylines in Comics” too.

Anyway, with that pseudo-disclaimer out of the way, I now present my “20 Things Every Superhero Comic Collection Needs” in no particular order:

1. Something with art from Jack Kirby
I’ve never been a big fan of the Fantastic Four. I guess I always perceived them as being too mature for me and my teenage wanderlust showed no interest for the down-home feeling of Marvel’s first family. I also thought that the early FF looked weird…too boxey and too linear. It wasn’t until I was exposed to Kirby’s Black Panther, Eternals and Mister Miracle that I started to appreciate his utter craziness. Looking back now, it’s easy to see why he’s called the King.

2. Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange
His Spider-Man has gained praise for showing the true Peter Parker, the buttoned up nerd who happens upon a life-changing miracle/curse. His artwork is fluid and nimble, making Spider-Man appear much more…uh…spider-like. However, his magical adversaries, absurd backgrounds and the creepy way he draws the Sorcerer Supreme’s fingers like they have a life of their own, make Ditko’s Dr. Strange truly sublime.

3. Frank Miller’s Daredevil
Daredevil lives in Hell’s Kitchen and fights at street level. Until Frank Miller added his gritty touch to this hero, it was hard to remember those two simple facts. Add in the Bullseye/Elektra saga and you’ve got the makings of a classic.

4. Keith Giffen’s Justice League
The relaunched Justice League of America added a new facet to the storied history of the franchise: humor. By mixing the proper drama and pathos with a certain level of tomfoolery, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis were able to craft a superior superhero adventure. The interplay between team members was elevated to an artform and showed dimensions previously lacking in most DC titles. Plus, Giffen’s Heckler miniseries was stupidly awesome.

5. James Robinson’s Golden Age and/or Starman
Golden Age is one of the stories that brought me back into comics. Robinson writes real people. And, even though they’re typically in extraordinary circumstances, they come off as having real lives. There’s something to be said for that in the superhero genre. I haven’t read all of his Starman work, but the first volume really drew me in too.

6. Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier
If I were to, hypothetically, put these twenty items in a real order, it would be difficult not to put this in the first slot. Hands down, I think Cooke captured in this story not only the feeling of an entire era, but the hopes and fears that went along with it. Add in a facet of much needed heroism in this time of doubt, and the story just begs to be read.

7. Something written by Mark Gruenwald
This entry is closest to me because I once had a regular correspondence going on with Mr. Gruenwald and I was shocked when I learned of his passing. His Squadron Supreme is the ultimate “what if?” story, set in a world where superheroes are in charge. And his run on Captain America was both innovative and fun, encompassing the Scourge storyline and Cap’s cross-country road trip.

8. Mike Grell’s Green Arrow
Critics like to point to the Denny O’Neill/Neil Adams run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow as the pinnacle for these characters. Issues delving into racism and drug use were poignant when they were released, but the language, at least, seems a bit dated today. I prefer the darker struggles faced by Ollie when he relocated to Seattle and endured some real life ups and downs while assuming a stronger vigilante bent.

9. Something by Grant Morrison
Take your pick: Doom Patrol, Animal Man, All-Star Superman or New X-Men. You really can’t go wrong with any of them. While his other work has been decadent and diverse, Morrison’s work with the superhero genre proves that these characters should be anything but one-dimensional.

10. A Chris Claremont/John Byrne collaboration
In their prime, Chris and John were two of the best storytellers in modern comics. Take a peek through their runs on Uncanny X-Men or Power Man and Iron Fist for some great reads. It doesn’t hurt that Claremont’s Marvel Team-Up stories and Byrne’s Alpha Flight were some of my favorites too.

11. Loeb/Sale Batman stories
If Claremont/Byrne set the bar for superhero collaborations, then Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale sailed high above it with their dissections of the Batman mythos in The Long Halloween, Haunted Knight and Dark Victory. Add in the superb Spider-Man: Blue and Daredevil: Yellow for Marvel and you’ve got enough reading to last for a long time. Their Wolverine/Gambit story was pretty good, as was the Challengers of the Unknown miniseries that launched their teamwork. Hulk: Gray? Not so memorable.

12. Some Golden Age DC stories…Starman, Spectre, Sandman, Doctor Fate
If not for the offbeat plotlines, at least read some of this stuff just to see how far the medium has come since those early days. I pick DC properties specifically, because they reach further back in time. What seemed like quick, throwaway books back then, can offer a telling window into thoughts and ideals of a former era.

13. Something written by Bill Mantlo
Wow. If you ever want to just sit back and say “what the f…” while reading a comic book, Mantlo can give you that reaction. Characters, conversations and plotlines seem like forgotten devices when the focus of the story is based on how weird he can make it. Check out the Jack of Hearts mini, his run on Rom or Champions or his various Defenders issues for some great stuff. But the key to any collection would be Bill’s magnum opus: Micronauts.

14. Something from Paul Pope
Here’s where my opinions entrench themselves. I don’t think there’s a better fine artist operating in the comics field today. And, while Paul’s meandering lines and loose forms have an electricity in his own work, I find them to be utterly irresistible when he works with Batman, Spider-Man or any other superhero icon. Paul Pope is part of a new breed of comic book artist, whose roots lie strongly in Kirby’s realm.

15. Something drawn by Seth Fisher
Another unique perspective on comic book art that adds elements of fun and wonder back into the funnybooks. Sadly, Mr. Fisher passed away in a freak accident a few years back. Pick up his Green Lantern: Willworld, Batman: Snow or Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big in Japan work to see some truly amazing visuals.

16. OHOTMU/Who’s Who
Seriously. You can’t enjoy the superhero books unless you understand the people and principles behind them. DC’s Who’s Who provided one universe’s worth of information, but for my money, Marvel blew them out of the water with the original runs of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. My copies have been read and referenced so often that they’re barely being held together.

17. A complete run of SOMETHING lasting more than 50 issues
Put some effort into it. You can’t be a true fan of the genre unless you’ve put up with some mediocre stories in an effort to grasp the big picture. Personally, I have complete runs of Marvel Team-Up, the original Punisher ongoing and the original X-Factor series. I used to own a full run of both Peter David’s Aquaman and the first Excalibur series. And I’m only two or three issues away from owning the entire first run of Firestorm too. That’s dedication.

18. Something from new Image…early Powers or Invincible
No superhero fan should live on Marvel and DC alone. Image was founded by creators whose reputations were built on superhero work. However, a lot of the first and second generations of Image work was derivative of the times. New Image has carved its own niche with rich titles such as Robert Kirkman’s Invincible (and Walking Dead…not superheroes, but worth a mention) and the early run of Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers (which is a perfect vehicle for his stop and start dialogue style).

19. Authority
In order to make an omelette, you have to crack a few eggs…or, evidently, kick a few people in their wiggly bits. Authority is the next generation’s Watchmen or Squadron Supreme, a group of superpowered individuals who take it upon themselves to protect the human race whether they like it or not. It’s the perfect culmination of a post-heroic genre.

20. Something that is tangentially related to superhero comics
In order to truly appreciate the fights-n-tights genre, you need to look at some of the work that was at least partially inspired by it. Whether rooted in parody, sci-fi or politics, the following titles clearly owe their existence to superheroes in one form or another: Badger, Judge Dredd, Tick, Scud, Groo, Marshal Law, Preacher. In my book, you can’t go wrong with any of them. Take superhero books in moderation and break up the monotony with one of these great titles.

Very interesting list.  I’ll be posting mine soon, but here are my comments on yours:

1.  Jack Kirby art:  I know this is horrible, but I feel I need to come clean; I am not a huge fan of Kirby’s art.  This is going to sound like blasphemy to many, so let me say that I fully appreciate and acknowledge his place in the comics pantheon.  His layouts are amazing and I feel the energy pouring from the page, but the actual drawings do little for me.  Unfortunately, there’s so much energy that some of his panels almost read like parody; it’s the graphic equivalent of “chewin the scenery”.  There’s no doubt that he is one of the most important and influential comics creators ever, and so I know why he made your list, but he could never make mine.

2.  Ditko’s Dr. Strange:  While this wouldn’t make my list, I agree that Ditko’s Dr. Strange is my favorite work of his.  I’m not a fan of his more recent artwork, but his stuff for Marvel in the 60s is amazing, and his Dr. Strange work shows an ability to draw the undrawable that no one since has quite been able to match.

3.  Miller’s Daredevil:  This doesn’t show up on my list, although Miller does.  It’s odd that this is here, as I just read a bunch of Miller’s Daredevil over the weekend.  I’ve cooled on Miller’s work quite a bit in recent years, but I have to say, this stands up beautifully; the artwork is gorgeous, the story is great and you can feel the dirt and grime oozing off the pages and onto your fingers.  Great work. 

4.  Giffen’s Justice League:  This is on my list, and high on my list (although I consider it Giffen and DeMatteis’ Justice League).  I was never a real DC fan until these comics, which dragged me into the DC Universe, and convinced me to check out some other titles on that side of the aisle.  Brilliant stuff; the early issues with Kevin Maguire’s pencils are perhaps the best, and the later issues did slide into sitcom territory, but truly, there really isn’t a bad issue in their run.  I’d also like to point out that, especially in the beginning, there were real stories and plots here.  There are also serious issues in the run, including one where Despero returns to Earth, goes on a rampage, and even kills Gypsy’s family.  The ability of Giffen and DeMatteis to go from silly to serious so seamlessly has been almost unmatched in comics.

5.  James Robinson:  The #1 item on my list is Starman; the best superhero comic of the 90s, and perhaps the best superhero comic ever.  The Golden Age is also an incredibly good book.  I’m thrilled that Robinson is back writing comics after too long away, and hope that the Powers That Be give him his own series again, which is really where he shines; writing stints on books like Superman is a waste of his talents.

6.  New Frontier:  Not on my list.  I think it’s a great story, but I don’t accord it the status that so many people do.  It’s crisp and slick and very well done, but I’m not sure it’s so unique that it is an essential part of anyone’s collection.

7.  Mark Gruenwald:  His Squadron Supreme made my list, and I agree that most of his Captain America run was brilliant.  However, besides his work as a writer, I think he was one of the best editors that Marvel Comics ever had.  He clearly cared about the characters and loved the universe over which he presided.  He was a fan, but he didn’t approach the titles he edited from the viewpoint of “What do I want to see as a fan?” (as so many writers do today), but from the viewpoint of “What would make the best story?”  He influenced so much more than the books he wrote, and the Marvel Universe has been so much poorer since his death at much too young an age.

8.  Grell’s Green Arrow:  Meh.  Ok, if you enjoy that sort of thing.  While I enjoy some of Grell’s work, I feel he may be a tad overrated.  His Green Arrow seems to have been riding the coattails of the “Grim ‘N Gritty” era ushered in by Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and was notable more for that than for any truly original work from Grell.

9.  Morrison:  Not on my list, but certainly I see why he is on yours.  I run hot and cold on Grant Morrison, but that’s because he’s willing to take chances; it’s hard to hit the highs he’s hit (and there are plenty of them) without risking some of the lows (I find some of his books to be nigh incomprehensible).  As for me, I recommend his Animal Man, still one of my favorite titles he’s done in the superhero genre.

10.  Claremont/Byrne:  Agreed.  Not on my list, but good grief, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be.  These two were an amazing team, each one (I believe) reigning in the stylistic excesses of the other, excesses which would sometimes overwhelm their later, solo, works.  I know it’s the most overexposed of their collaborations, but truly, if you read their Uncanny X-Men issues, you may finally understand why this group of mutant misfits became such a sensation.

11.  Loeb/Sale:  Again, not on my list, but their Batman work is amazing.  Besides the three miniseries you mentioned, they also did Catwoman: When in Rome which is just as much fun as the others.  Sometimes Loeb can strike out as a writer, but when he’s teamed with Sale, particularly on Batman, he seems to be able to write Batman and his cast with the best of them.  Sale’s unique visual interpretations of the Bat-Cast is just icing on the cake.

12.  Golden Age stories:  If you insist.  They are interesting for historical purposes, but for reading enjoyment?  I haven’t found one yet that really spoke to me.  No wait, I do have one, and it’s on my list.  I shall speak of it then

13:  Bill Mantlo:  I don’t even know what to say about him (except that your love for his work is stronger than mine).  Mantlo’s work was everywhere for Marvel in the 80s, until a tragic accident left him trapped in an unresponsive state.  I want to like his work more than I do.  None of it is bad, but so much of it speaks to potential ideas that he simply seemed unable to fully realize or express well on the page.  That being said, he made the Hulk a readable comic during his tenure, and was willing to change the Hulk’s status quo (which had remained relatively unchanged for almost 20 years) and I give him a lot of credit for that.

14.  Paul Pope:  I don’t get it, and I don’t see it.  I’m chalking this up to a man crush and leaving it at that.

15.  Seth Fisher:  Nope, don’t get this one either.  Perhaps we’ll chalk it up to you being cooler than I?

16:  Handbooks:  Not on my list, but I certainly loved both DC’s and Marvel’s Handbooks for their universes (and yes, I also believe that Marvel did a better job with their Handbooks).  I read through these constantly.  They were also a great way to keep current on any characters you didn’t read, and to find out about characters like Woodgod, who made precious few appearances and could be easy to miss (not that you miss anything if you miss Woodgod, but you get my point).

17.  Complete runs:  I couldn’t agree less.  I used to have complete runs of many titles, but got rid of the fill-in issues and bad runs when I realized I was wasting my time.  Why am I going to read the Chuck Austen written issues of The Avengers, just to have a complete run?  I can waste my time and money on them, or I can instead choose to spend those resources on something that actually warrants them.  I choose the latter option, and I encourage others to do the same. 

18.  Image:  Agreed.  Invincible isn’t on my list, but it’s one of my alternates.  I also agree that early Powers tend to be very strong issues.  I’d encourage people to always look outside Marvel and DC for good, strong super-hero stories (and other stories).  There is some great work being done outside of the Big Two, and you’re missing out if you don’t look for it.

19.  Authority:  Agreed, to a point.  I listed the first twelve issues, by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, as they really show what you can do if you take the brakes off and allow your comic to barrel ahead, with nothing holding it back.  These issues are also the first true “Widescreen” comics I ever read, and they draw you into them almost as if you’re watching a movie.  However, I can’t recommend any Authority comics after these two creators left; subsequent teams seemed to feel that the secret to the Authority was simply to try and raise the bar on violence, sex and witty banter, and the heart left the series.  It became simply a very empty, very cynical attempt to outdo anything else on the stands, and it’s not worth your time.

20.  Potpourri:  I agree with you on this, and always encourage people, again, to look outside of the Marvel and DC Universes for some great comics.  Although we mostly talk superheroes here, I find that some of my favorite comics are either barely superhero or aren’t superhero at all.  One of the series Jason mentioned is on my list, and I agree that the others are great.  There’s good stuff out there, stuff that appeals to a wide variety of tastes.  Go out, find it, and enjoy it.


The Tiny Titans: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Sep-12-08

In the early years of the 1960s, Marvel Comics seemed as if it could do no wrong. It’s early concepts were very popular and ushered in a new way of doing comics. These characters would go on to become icons and parts of popular culture, the members of a new mythology. These early characters included Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor…..and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Well, not every concept can be a winner. But why didn’t Ant-Man and the Wasp ever become the popular characters that the other early Marvel heroes became? What was it about them that made them perennial second stringers?

Dr. Henry Pym was introduced very early in the history of Marvel Comics, and is one of their earliest heroes. A scientist, he develops a way to shrink to the size of an ant, and after his wife is captured and then killed by Communists (ah, early Marvel, where Communists were the go-to villains) he uses this method to fight crime. He fights crime on his own for some time, using his amazing ability to grow smaller and control ants to thwart the plans of evil doers and was given his own series of stories in Tales to Astonish, where he became the cover featured hero. However, while he may have been featured on the cover, it seems Marvel felt that he was missing something. That something was apparently a partner, and soon Marvel introduced the Wasp to join Ant-Man on his adventures.

Janet Van Dyne was the daughter of a wealthy scientist. Her father had befriended Pym, and when her father was killed by creatures from another dimension, Van Dyne turned to Pym for support. Pym offered to share his powers with her, and she agreed. She gained the ability to shrink to ant-size as well, but unlike Pym, she could fly on her own, and had “wasp’s stings” which she could use to attack her foes. The two became partners, but more, they became romantically involved, although never as romantically involved as the Wasp would have liked. Pym kept her at a certain distance, as he was initially not over the death of his first wife, and then because he was a somewhat introverted, dedicated scientist who had more important things to consider rather than romance. Of course, the real reason he kept her at a distance was because Marvel, in those days, very much enjoyed the storytelling device of having two characters in love with each other, but not able to reveal their feelings (and if you think that this storytelling device would get a little tired when used in ten different comic titles each month, you’d be very correct).

Over the years, these two characters would undergo numerous changes. They would get married, get divorced, and then date on and off over the years. Pym would soon change his super-hero identity from Ant-Man to Giant-Man to Goliath to Yellowjacket to Dr. Pym the Scientific Adventurer and then switch back and forth between them. The Wasp would go from a flighty socialite more interested in men than in catching bad guys to the chairman of the Avengers for years to an oddly mutated wasp creature, and back to human. There would be new people to claim the mantle of the Ant-Man, other heroes who would call themselves Giant-Man and Goliath, and villains who would take the identity of Yellowjacket (surprisingly, no one else would try to call themselves Dr. Pym, the Scientific Adventurer). These characters still exist, 45 years after their creation, but they always seem to be at the periphery of the Marvel Universe; never able to crack into the mainstream media the way so many of their contemporaries have.

Why? All of the ingredients exist within these two that are within the other Marvel heroes that have graduated to the popular consciousness. As mentioned, there was the unrequited love that Marvel enjoyed so much (were there any happy couples at Marvel in the 60s? Even Reed and Susan Richards started out as engaged, and had to contend with Sue’s infatuation with the Sub-Mariner during their early years). There was the tragic origins, with the loss of loved ones, which seem to populate the origins of most Marvel heroes (Spidey lost his uncle, Daredevil lost his father, Captain America lost his partner, the Hulk lost his ability to wear a 32 inch waist). Some would say that they were underpowered and Ant-Man was too weak to make it in the big leagues, but those leagues were a lot smaller than we think. Early Marvel heroes were much weaker than modern heroes. The Human Torch couldn’t flame on for more than a few minutes at a time. The Thing was only half as strong as he is today, and not as invulnerable. The early X-Men were a very weak team…Jean Grey’s telekinesis enabled her to thread needles and move small logs over holes, the Beast was just a little stronger than a normal man, Iceman looked like Frosty the Snowman and the Angel could…well, just fly. That’s it. Besides, even if Ant-Man may have looked a little weak in the Avengers, alongside Thor and Iron Man, over at DC, the Atom was doing just fine in the Justice League and the Atom couldn’t even talk to ants!

So, why do you think these characters haven’t been able to attain a stronger fan base? And do they have potential today?

Wow. That was a very well written introduction. As I was reading it, I kept coming up with arguments in my head but then you would diffuse them in the very next paragraph. First I thought, perhaps their popularity waned because they were older, age-wise, than most Marvel heroes…but then you brought up the Fantastic Four. Then I thought, well maybe their unimpressive power set made them seem (pardon the pun) minuscule…but you answered that with reference to other weakly powered heroes and a mention of the relative success of Pym’s DC counterpart. Now I’m intrigued.

I have to admit that I am, at best, only familiar with these two characters through their interactions with the Avengers. I do own a few of their early Tales to Astonish appearances, as well as the Essential Ant-Man volume (which I really should read someday), but none of their adventures really stick out in my head aside from Hank’s overblown beatdown of Janet in the midst of his nervous breakdown. I never knew that Pym had been married before. I did not know that they met each other through Janet’s father. Ah…communists and inter-dimensional aliens…the backbone of early Marvel villainy.

When you think about it, and consider they were created in the Atomic Age and shared a lot of context with Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, it is rather odd that these two didn’t take off. Perhaps it was the title they were originally launched in. Tales to Astonish began as a science fiction anthology similar to its sister title, Tales of Suspense. They both switched to superhero-based stories in 1962. Ant-Man was featured in TtA while Iron Man became the star of ToS. In 1964, both books went to a split format. In TtA, Ant-Man shared space with Incredible Hulk. ToS saw Iron Man and Captain America splitting time. Without having any sort of sales numbers for reference, I can only infer that Tales of Suspense had the more popular configuration. I can also surmise this based on the fact that Ant-Man’s split adventures were quickly usurped after 10 issues by the Sub-Mariner. Obviously, something was wrong.

Was the tone too romantically inclined for readers? Too much “will they, won’t they” and not enough hard science and fantastical settings? Were the personalities all wrong? Pym, by himself, came across as an accomplished yet troubled professional. He had some tragedy in his past, but was trying to move past it and discover new things while also upholding some sort of honor…much like Spider-Man and Hulk. Wasp, on the other hand, came from privilege and was more concerned with fashion than feelings. There weren’t a lot of strong females at Marvel in those days. Aside from Sue Storm and Jean Grey, you’d be hard-pressed to find a prominent woman with her own strong views or any sort of personality (the turning point of this trend coming, of course, in 1966 with the classic introduction of Mary Jane Watson in Amazing Spider-Man #42). Maybe the characterization of Janet Van Dyne irked the title’s audience.

I can honestly say I’ve never been a fan of the Wasp. She just hasn’t had a consistent representation for me. My earliest memories of the Avengers have her playing dress-up in front of a mirror and shopping at exclusive boutiques. In fact, in those early issues I think she was more known for her costume changes than for her participation. She also looked to make Hank jealous at every turn, constantly talking about how handsome Cap and Thor were. She was kind of a snotty bitch. Then decades later, she suddenly grows a pair and is handed the mantle of Avengers leader completely out of left field (correct me if I’m hazy here). Captain America always talked about how strong-willed and reliable she was, but I just didn’t get it.

I also don’t understand how, if Pym gave her powers to her, she ended up with a different set of abilities from Ant-Man. How was she able to fly, but he wasn’t? Where did the stingers come from? Maybe she’s a mutant (as she’s shown to be in the parallel universe Ultimates…where she still isn’t smack-proof).

Pym never really resonated with me either, until his days in the West Coast Avengers. He always seemed to be used in a utilitarian manner. For example, if something was at risk of falling over, Pym was called upon to get big and hold it up. If a door was jammed, Pym was asked to shrink and climb into the lock mechanism. However, he was never asked to actually fight. What could he do? Call some gnats to pester the Wrecking Crew? Ruin Ultron’s picnic? Take a bath in Red Skull’s coffee mug? It wasn’t until the emphasis was taken off the size thing that Pym was treated as a useful member of the team. By rejiggering his Pym Particles and their purpose, Marvel was able to turn him into some sort of armory master always at the ready with the right device or weapon. Even though his costume would make fashion designers go blind, Hank was kind of cool.

You know I eventually want to turn this conversation towards Stature and the new Ant-Man, but I think we need to talk about Hank and Jan some more first. Can you see any glaring reason as to why these two never hit the big time? Do you agree with anything I’ve thrown out there? And are there any solutions that could bring them around in this new age of comics?

I’m honestly not sure why they weren’t more popular, and it’s often confused me. I believe you hit on part of the problem when you say that you don’t remember any of their early stories. I’ve read quite a few of them, and even I don’t remember them. Part of this may be because Stan Lee didn’t write most of them. After the first few stories, he just plotted them and let his brother, Larry Lieber, do the scripting. Plus, Jack Kirby also jumped ship after only a few issues, and the penciling duties went to Don Heck. Now, I’m not here to knock either Lieber or Heck; both of them did fine work for Marvel throughout the 60s, and Heck is especially known for drawing the Avengers and Iron Man for respectable runs. That being said, they were kind of considered the B team of the Marvel Bullpen. Without their top talent on these stories, did the readers not care? Did they feel they were getting the second string, so these characters must not be very popular?

It’s also often said that a hero’s measure is seen in the quality of their villains. We can name Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus, the Green Goblin, Magneto, Loki, and the Mandarin as some of the Silver Age Marvel villains who helped to catapult their heroes to stardom. Ant-Man and the Wasp had no villains of note. I suppose Pym’s archenemy was Egghead, but even if I tell you nothing else about him, I’m guessing you won’t imagine Egghead as being an incredibly impressive villain (which is kind of a shame, as he was used tremendously effectively by Roger Stern during his run on The Avengers). Many of their other villains are even worse. Their book introduced the Living Eraser, who was just as his name suggested, and for years was considered a punchline by most people, when discussing lame villains. Many of their other villains were assorted monsters and communists, which worked occasionally in other strips, but certainly couldn’t have been the basis for success for those characters that did become popular.

I also think part of the problem is that they kept changing Pym’s identity. Sure, he wasn’t working out as well as they had hoped, and they were trying to find something to make him tick. However, he changed identities four times in six years, which is practically unheard of in the annals of comics (I can’t think of another time it happened). It made the characters seem somewhat schizophrenic, and would become another punchline centering on this character. I think that perhaps, if Ant-Man wasn’t as successful as they had hoped, they might have considered giving him new and different powers, but keeping the identity the same. One change, that to Giant-Man may not have been a bad idea, if nothing else worked, but the two changes beyond that were just overkill.

I’d also point out that not every concept that came out of the Marvel Bullpen in the 60s was a success. The X-Men did horribly for the first fifteen years of their existence, almost being cancelled, and going to bi-monthly reprints for over a year. The Hulk saw his book cancelled after only six issues, and almost disappeared before he got stuck in Tales to Astonish after floating in limbo for a year. Daredevil, while considered popular now, was quickly knocked back to a bi-monthly schedule after being introduced, and stayed that way for over a decade. Perhaps the difference between all of these eventual success stories and Ant-Man and the Wasp is that these other characters managed to maintain their own titles. Even the X-Men, while in reprints for a year, were at least in the public eye. They were also portrayed consistently, unlike Pym, who never met a new identity he didn’t like. And we might want to throw in the Wasp’s costume changes you mentioned. While I think it was a neat addition to her character (hey, we don’t wear the same clothes every day. Why should super-heroes?), her constant costume changes meant she looked different every time a casual reader saw her. It’s hard to become iconic when you have a different appearance every month.

I will also agree that personalities were all over the place. Pym started with a consistent personality, but his buttoned down persona had already caused him to act slightly irrationally within his first year as an Avenger, when the Wasp was shot, and Pym practically had a breakdown trying to save her life. Sure, every Marvel hero in those days was overdramatic (they never met a piece of furniture that they didn’t feel couldn’t be improved with a little chewing), but he was really losing it. This theme was repeated over and over during his tenure with the Avengers, until he had his first actual mental breakdown in 1968. Sadly, this seemed to set the stage for future writers to simply allow Pym to act however they wanted. During the infamous storyline where Pym hit Van Dyne, and then attacked the Avengers, many fans were upset. I myself was also upset, not because it was a horrible storyline, but because it came out of nowhere! Jim Shooter had just started writing the book, and before he came onboard, Pym was fine and stable. The first issue Shooter wrote, it was like someone else inhabited Pym’s body, as Pym suddenly was an emotional wreck. Many other writers would do the same thing, twisting Pym’s personality to fit whatever storyline they wanted to tell.

Janet Van Dyne didn’t make out much better. A flighty female of the worst variety, this is a woman who married her husband after he had suffered a mental breakdown and thought he was another person. Yes, Pym was convinced that he had actually killed Pym and that he was a completely different person. Van Dyne knew this. And she married him anyway. There’s something wrong there. She retained her role as the “flighty socialite” until she was smacked by her husband, when her entire personality changed, as she became more businesslike. I certainly believe that an incident like that would change someone, but her change seemed a little sudden. Through it all, though, I do believe she has a well written personality, and her changes have made sense. Still, it must have been confusing for the casual reader to pick up a book and wonder what happened to the Wasp he had read about before, as she switched back and forth from being a competent and hardnosed leader to being a silly flirt.

Whew! More than I intended to write and more than anyone cared to read, but there it is. Do I think that there’s hope to make these two work in today’s marketplace? Well, I love both Pym and the Wasp. I think both characters should be used more often than they are, and should have a lot more respect, considering they are founding members of the Avengers. However, there’s so much history and water under the bridge with these two. I think it might be best to continue to use them as they are, working independently in the Marvel Universe. After all, there’s a new Ant-Man, and I think there’s a partner out there that could be teamed up with him to make a new team that could be much more popular than the old one.

Again with the excellent assessment! We make a good pair, you and I. You’re able to find the truth behind a character or situation and I’m able to take that truth and re-purpose it to improve the storytelling aspects. You set ’em up and I knock ’em down. We’re like a Fastball Special…y’know, if you were a big metal Russian and I fancied cigars.

You’ve hit the nail on the head on so many points. I had forgotten how many of the second-tier Marvel characters were kept on life support. Makes me wonder if the same would’ve happened to Hank and Janet had they been in their own self-contained series. The villain situation really was dire for the duo. Without at least one credible archenemy to fall back on, their adventures seemed aimless and disposable. And you probably wouldn’t notice it as much these days, but the costume thing is really a big deal when a character is first introduced. You need that frequency and repetition to reinforce the image.

However, after reading your thoughts on Pym’s various identities, I can’t help but think that this may have been the initial poisoning of the characters, the fatal flaw that they were born with. See, Ant-Man was pretty cool by himself. Ooooh! He can shrink down and show us the wonderful world of the near-microscopic. Then they added a female love interest. On face value there’s nothing wrong with that, but then it turns out that her powers nearly mimic those of Ant-Man to the letter. What was the point of having two characters in the same book with the same powers? That would’ve been like pairing up Hulk and Thing and expecting greatness. Sure, they’re good for a misunderstood fracas every now and then, but how boring would it be to have the two of them pounding on inanimate objects page after page after page?

I can only think that if there had been a greater dichotomy between the two of them, it would have made the stories more interesting, the situations more complicated. That’s why I believe that our crusading couple hit their collective stride when Pym became Giant-Man. Now we’ve got a huge dude with his little partner. And, just so it doesn’t look like I’m being sexist, the situation may have been even more interesting if he had stayed Ant-Man and she had become Giant-ette (or something).

Which brings me to the simply inspired pairing of Eric O’Grady and Cassie Lang.

Let’s be realistic. Hank and Jan are a bit too old and historic to be revamped at this stage. In the “Meanwhile…Comics” universe, Hank Pym has already been reassigned to Hawkeye’s west-side support team. And we may as well just let Wasp do whatever she deems appropriate. She’s been portrayed as a fashion designer and a talk show host already. Why not have her pursue life as a psuedo-celeb or government official (really the same thing anyway, right?).

Eric and Cassie are the future of size-based adventures. She’s the previously sheltered daughter of Pym’s successor as Ant-Man. After her father’s unfortunate passing, she rebelled against her family to pursue a path of heroic duty. He’s a former SHIELD operative with less than adequate respect for women (or anything else) who stole an experimental update of Dr. Pym’s Ant-Man costume right from under his nose. He’s been shown as a cocksure, sarcastic and selfish “hero” who is trying to work the system for his own benefit.

PERFECT. MATCH.

I’d like to explore a Wasp/Ant-Man cooperative sort of storyline with these two as the stars. And Janet could play a role as a MILF type character! Kidding…or not. I can see Eric and Cassie bickering constantly, with Eric sticking his foot in his mouth at every turn. There’s also a big difference between the morals and goals of these two that allows them to play off each other. Potential abounds. What say you?

I think these two are exactly what you called them: a perfect match.

These two are your stereotypical odd couple. One of them is part of a heroic legacy, values heroism and believes that being a hero is a higher calling. One of them is a snotty punk who managed to luck into some superhero gear, and has been trying to figure out how to make it work for him. What’s great here is that these two characters would never work together. Luckily for us, we have the Initiative (and isn’t this the mark of any successful writer in a shared universe? The ones I like the most are the ones that can take a company mandated direction, like the 50 state initiative, and make it work for them, rather than fighting it.) and both of these people are signed on with it. So, we simply have the Initiative pair these two. Now they have no choice but to work together.

We’ve already discussed how not every state has a superteam assigned to it, and how it seems like Marvel is scraping the bottom of their super-barrel to find heroes for every state. It seems likely to me that these two could be the only members assigned to one of the more out of the way states. Perhaps they could be sent somewhere like Nevada (does that state have a team yet? Whoops, looks like they do). Ok, scratch that. Let’s try Virginia. Considering that it’s very close to Washington DC and does contain at least one large city, I’m surprised that it doesn’t have a team yet, but it seems up for grabs. So, we send our duo somewhere like that. Then we watch them try to learn to live together.

Eric is a man who’s probably about 5-10 years old than Cassie. He’s got few redeeming qualities, and is more concerned with getting laid and getting rich than he is with helping people. Cassie is trying to live up to the legacy of her father, and seeing this man in her father’s old costume would certainly begin to bother her. Eric, for his part, probably cares not a whit for the previous holder of his super-human moniker, and I can’t imagine he’d have much time for someone he would likely view as a young girl (unless he thought he could get her into bed). I think watching these two trying to learn how to work together, without killing each other, would be a lot of fun.

There’s an interesting aspect to Cassie’s powers which I think Eric could exploit. It seems that her growth powers are affected by her emotions…growing when she’s angry and shrinking when she’s shy. Even though both of them can increase and decrease their sizes, I find it most interesting to have Cassie as the bigger of the two of them. It plays to their personalities. Cassie has big ideals. Eric is really a small and petty person.

Look at me doing all the philosophicalizationating!

I could eventually see Cassie growing (heh, get it?) to like having Eric around, maybe building a crush on him in spite of herself. I also think Eric would be oblivious to the whole situation, more concerned with where he’s going to get his next piece of tail or score his next paycheck and completely missing the fact that Cassie is right there ripe for the picking. There’d be a lot of that “he said, she said” stuff mixed with missed opportunities and tied up nicely with a bunch of crossed wires. It’s the feel good comic of the year! A genuine rom-com romp through superhero trials and tribulations!

I give it five stars.