2009 Superhero Resolutions

Dec-17-08

When we’re not trying to save a forgotten character or rehabilitate one that seems to have fallen off-track, we (or at least I) always seem to end up taking the industry to task for one reason or another. I guess blogs wouldn’t exist if people didn’t have anything to complain about! As the clock winds down on 2008, it’s easy to look back and point fingers. At the same time, this joyous and comforting season provides the perfect opportunity to look ahead and resolve to make changes. While I promise to try to be funnier without being so caustic (except when it comes to Bendis), I figure some of our favorite Marvel and DC heroes and villains are also hoping to make some positive changes in their lives too.

With that in mind, here are our thoughts on what some of those New Year’s resolutions may look like:

Spider-Man: I resolve to find true love. I really think it’s time that I settle down, find a wife, and get into a solid domestic relationship. That’s the one thing in my life that seems to be missing. Seriously. Like, it was there and then it wasn’t. Weird, huh?

Kang: I resolve to go back in time and convince myself to never go back in time. It’s just too confusing. Of course, if I do that, would I cease to exist? Would I get caught in some sort of weird Moebius Strip where I kept meeting myself seconds after I just left myself? And wouldn’t it be cool if I just scrapped this whole idea and created a massive army of different time-stamped versions of myself…all one second apart? Man, that would really screw some stuff up. Totally rad.

Hulk: I resolve to be a better father. Kids learn from example. I can’t be leaping all over creation smashing stuff and speaking in broken English. What kind of precedent does that set for my little Skaar? Less mindless violence and more dedication to the arts, that’s my goal. Maybe I’ll even take up yoga.

Aquaman: I resolve to…hello? Is anyone listening to me? HELLO?!? Stupid fish aren’t even paying attention anymore.

Punisher: I resolve to only kill people who deserve it. And by “deserve it,” I mean “does something that falls within my broad and ever-changing definition of evil…from kiddie porn to jaywalking, on any given day.” Honestly, that guy driving that Miata the other day? He was just asking to be blown up into tiny pieces with a bazooka and about a half-dozen other high-explosive armaments. Should whack his family too. What kind of person drives a Miata?

Luke Cage: I resolve to never join a group called the Dark Avengers. Kinda sends the wrong message, ya know? Sweet Christmas!

Kang: I resolve to go back in time and convince myself to never go back in time. It’s just too confusing. Of course, if I do that, would I cease to exist? Would I get caught in some sort of weird Moebius Strip where I kept meeting myself seconds after I just left myself? And wouldn’t it be cool if I just scrapped this whole idea and created a massive army of different time-stamped versions of myself…all one second apart? Man, that would really screw some stuff up. Totally rad.

Iron Man: I resolve to start drinking again. Can you blame me?

Blue Beetle: I resolve to stay relevant regardless of losing my solo series and becoming a quasi-legacy to a character who was never all that fabulous to begin with. But hey, as long as I keep making appearances on a keen new Batman cartoon, everyone will love me! I mean, look at the headliners I’m appearing with…Plastic Man, Red Tornado, uh…Aquaman? Damn it. I’m screwed.

Madrox: I resolve to stop sending doubles in to deal with the crying baby. It’s not fair to them and it doesn’t really teach me anything. Although, on the bright side, at least I’m not the one who has to put up with all the screaming and crying. Considering half the kid’s genes are from Siryn, that’s probably a safe thing.

All-Star Batman: I resolve to stop talking like a goddamn retard.

Kang: I resolve to go back in time and convince myself to never go back in time. It’s just too…ah, crap.

Dr. Strange: I resolve to be the central character in a Bendis crossover this year, meaning I also resolve to act horribly out of character as long as that advances the plot, no matter how nonsensical that may be.

Cyclops: Now that my current honey, Emma Frost, looks to be going evil again, I resolve to find another skank to bring home to my bedroom. I wonder what Selene, the Black Queen, is up to. Jean would be so proud.

Wolverine: I resolve to only appear in fifteen books a month. Wouldn’t want to become overexposed.

Thor: Verily, I doth resolveth to speaketh in English most plain, so as not to confuseth those who doth find themselves arrayed around me.

Hercules: Verily, I doth resolveth….hey Odinson! Getith thine own resolution. Fine. I doth resolve to ne’er move from the fine publication in which I currently reside. It is mine now Hulk, you poor excuse for a hero! You shall ne’er move me from it!

She-Hulk: I doth resolve…sorry. It’s contagious. I resolve to get my own title again. I wonder who can relaunch me this time? Maybe I’ll give Byrne a call….it’s not like he’s doing anything important right now.

Sub-Mariner: I resolve to enter rehab this year. I mean, have you seen me lately? I look worse than Tony Stark did after a three month bender!

Dr. Light (female): I resolve to turn back the clock on my personality and act like I did in 1986 again. It may not make sense to anyone else, but there’s a reason I’m ignoring the last 20 years of my life and acting in this manner. Honest.

Obsidian: I resolve to go back to the JSA and fade into the woodwork again, since the only title to explore my character is now, <sigh>, cancelled.

Scarlet Witch: I resolve to return to comics to say what I should have said in 2005: “No more Bendis.”

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Wolverine, Part 2: Mutant Boogaloo

Nov-13-08

Okay, John and I have established what seems to be a rather easy and understandable way to reduce Wolverine’s ridiculously overblown powers. This reduction (and temporary loss) of powers will instill some emotion into Wolverine, and will allow him to show the slight weakness and trepidation necessary for a believable and long-lasting hero.

However, while we’ve managed to clear up the physical part of what has caused Wolverine to be a bit much, we still haven’t really rectified the historical parts of the character. His origin has been established, but all the other little bits thrown in make his entire backstory a royal mess. And it seems like every writer, who has worked on either his solo title or one of the team books he regularly appears in, wants to throw their own two cents into the pot. I’m not really sure if there’s anything we can do to sweep up the mess, but it’s worth talking about.

Then there’s the subject of rogues galleries and supporting casts. I think we should at least briefly discuss his tenure with the X-Men and how they’ve affected his life. Then we can discuss the implications for his solo title. This would also cover the fact that he’s extremely overused in the Marvel Universe (that’s the bad kind of extreme, not the cool XTREME!) and something needs to be done to fix that too.

So, let’s begin. Here’s my opening statement: Wolverine. What’s up with that?

I consider myself to be a pretty obsessive comics geek, and I have an amazing knowledge of the histories of the major characters from many comics universes….and I’m sure I couldn’t actually recite much of Wolverine’s origin without missing or confusing entire chunks of it. He was originally created as a man with a mysterious past, which worked perfectly for his personality as the tough, silent loner. Unfortunately, it seems subsequent writers have taken this nebulous past as a challenge to fill it with tales, some of which contradict each other. Matters are made worse by the fact that Wolverine’s healing factor is now said to slow his aging, giving him a much longer lifespan than normal; this gives writers even more undocumented time to fill with unimportant, trite stories.

Some writers, when confronted with this sea of mismatched facts for a character, will go out of their way to explain the discrepancies. Heck, that’s been happening since the 1970s, when Steve Englehart used his Celestial Madonna saga in The Avengers to explain some of the discrepancies in the Vision and the original Human Torch’s origins, as well as other bits of continuity. Kurt Busiek (with some help from Roger Stern) did the same thing in the Avengers Forever limited series; that was basically twelve issues of continuity explanations. John Byrne does this sort of thing all the time, perhaps most notable in his Wonder Woman run. Now, I have respect for all of the creators I just named, but I have to say, I don’t agree with that theory. Yes, we could come up with some sort of long, detailed explanation for how Wolverine’s origin actually fits together, and publish it as a special one-shot or a limited series (since, God knows, Wolverine doesn’t star in enough books). However, I think the better way to go is to just start ignoring it. Do a quick and pared down origin for Wolverine, run it as a quick flashback in the first issue of your run, and just move on. I find that stories that attempt to explain continuity fail in two ways: first, they tend to be very heavy on exposition, and consequently, they tend to be a little boring; and second, they are completely impenetrable to the casual reader. Cynics may say comics no longer have casual readers, and they’re probably right, but I see no reason to try and exclude any few that wander into the hobby.

I think the down and dirty origin just needs to hit a few highlights: Born James Howlett in the 1800s, he was the son of rich plantation owners. He left the plantation and took the name Logan. He eventually joins the Canadian military and then moves to Madripoor for a time. He then becomes a mercenary until he rejoins the Canadian military as a member of Team X. He’s kidnapped, has his bones laced with adamantium, and is rescued by the Hudsons, who convince him to join Alpha Flight. He skips out on them to join the X-Men. That’s a concise origin that hits all the high points, and it isn’t needlessly convoluted. It’s long, but he’s over a hundred years old (can I say how stupid I think that idea is? I think he works much better if he’s no older than 60) so he’s going to have a lot on his resume.

Does that work for you?

Your precision is commendable. I agree that the concept of Wolverine being centuries-old is not only laughable, but highly unrelatable. You make a lot of sense with the “ignore it” approach though. Most of the dumb stories related over the years about the character have no real bearing on who he is anyway. They were jsut a way for the writer to feel like he contributed something. But…

What if a lot of those stories were just flat-out untrue? What if Wolverine was just one of those guys, like a goofy uncle or an insecure schoolboy, who made up tall tales to both impress and confuse people? Granted, it’s pretty easy to confirm the points that you’ve made in your concise summary of his origin, but all the other little things could either be lies or just things that he thinks he’s remembering…either to repress the true memories that are too painful or maybe they were planted there by the Weapon X folks to block out his real past.

Probably a bit convoluted, but it would reveal a lot if we discovered that Wolverine was a big, fat liar.

Sure, he’s older than he looks. He has ties to Captain America and Nick Fury. And he married some chick in Japan. But some of his solo stories have been told with no supporting evidence…just Wolverine out on his own, doing what he does best, with no one to confirm or deny the exploits. What if he never actually fought Hulk in his first appearance? What if someone tracked down a few of these villains he says he’s faced and they don’t even know who he is? What if the whole Patch thing was just a fever dream?

That would be kind of funny.

And sad.

Anyway, I agree that most of that junk need never see the light of day again. Good comic readers should be able to block that garbage out (if they haven’t already). Funny aside: Earlier today I was reading a post over on Topless Robot about the awful stories in the Spider-Man Clone Saga. And I don’t remember any of them! I’m soooooo glad my brain was able to delete those from the IQ files.

So, with his history satisfyingly ignored, we should move on to Wolverine’s friends and enemies. You’ve already briefly mentioned the Alpha Flight and Department H folks who rescued Wolverine from obscurity. How did he happen upon the X-Men though? Aside from the movie version, I don’t remember that part of the story. Let’s talk a bit about the various members of the X-Men and how he interacts with them. We all know about the on-again off-again love triangle with Jean Grey and Cyclops. Then there’s the quasi-mentor relationship he had with Jubilee. What else though? How is he perceived overall by the X-Men family? Other mutants? Other heroes in the Marvel Universe?

One quick point to make on his origin. You mentioned the idea that some of those stories detailing his past were implanted memories, or tall tales that Logan has spun. I originally had considered trying to explain away some of his backstory, since I dislike so much of it, and return him to a simpler character. Unfortunately, much of what I came up with didn’t make him simpler, but just more convoluted. Still, I had one idea that I kind of liked….

What if the story of James Hewlett is all true….but he wasn’t Wolverine? The oldest stories in Wolverine’s origin are the hardest to confirm, and some of what happened to Hewlett may be true, but in actuality, Hewlett lived his own life for years, until meeting Wolverine in the 1930s, when Wolverine would have been very young (say late teens at the most) and Hewlett was old. Hewlett told Wolverine tales of his life, and Wolverine basically assumed his identity when Hewlett died. You could work this into your idea that Wolverine is a big fat liar, and I do think it makes the character more interesting. However, besides making that stupid Origin miniseries completely pointless, I can’t ever see it flying with Marvel brass. Too bad.

As for Wolverine and the X-Men, he joined them because Xavier recruited him to go rescue his original students from Krakoa. I don’t believe they had ever met before, but that’s where he enters the mythology. Originally, they said that he left Alpha Flight for the X-Men because he was bored, but later on it was revealed he was in love with Heather Hudson and didn’t want that to come between him and her husband (the first time he fell in love with the wife of the team leader; he really is rather a creepy old guy, isn’t he?).

As for how he fits into the X-Men family, I’m not sure at present. For years he was the rowdy, almost psychotic scrapper and he was close to all of the new X-Men who joined up to fight Krakoa. He had a bond with Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and Banshee and the five of them were pretty tight. He was very much disliked by Iceman and Angel, and the enmity with Angel, at the very least, lasted for at least ten or fifteen years. By the time the new X-Men team began to split up and new members began to arrive, Wolverine had become such a popular character that everyone seemed to like him. New members rarely treated him like a crazy man who could fly into berserker rages, and indeed, that rarely happened anymore anyway. Even Kitty Pryde, when she first appeared, seemed more frightened of Nightcrawler than she was of Wolverine. I’ll admit that Nightcrawler looks odd, but he’s almost always drawn as blue, fuzzy and kind of cute. Wolverine is a short, hairy, cigar smoking, brusque terror, and I think he’d be a heck of a lot more scary to a young girl than someone who looks like an animated stuffed animal.

In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to stop and mention how the insistence at Marvel of pairing Wolverine up with young girls (first Shadowcat and then Jubilee) is the wrong move for the character. I understand that they’re trying to portray Wolverine as the gruff uncle with the heart of gold, but honestly, he should simply be the gruff uncle. When Wolverine first appeared, he was a scary, violent little man with razor sharp claws. He had enough trouble associating with the adults on the team, never mind the teenagers. However, as he became more popular, his persona softened. He rarely lost his temper (unless it was integral to the plot). He became more friendly and spent time with the rest of the team. And he became the mentor to every other young girl to be recruited. Personally, I think they should have kept him standoffish, particularly to the younger members. Sure, let him bond with some of the other adults, but don’t make him a den mother. First of all, I still find it hard to believe that young girls wouldn’t be scared half to death by him. Second, he’s the quintessential loner; it’s hard enough to sell that when he belongs to two of the largest teams in the Marvel Universe. It becomes an impossible concept to convey when he’s got sidekicks.

And along those lines, the enmity he had with Iceman and Angel has also disappeared over the years. To an extent, that’s fine; these guys have to work together, and more importantly, watch each other’s backs in life and death situations. It’s natural that they would bond over the years. Still, Wolverine has one of the most grating personalities in the Marvel Universe. Surely there are going to be some mutants who really aren’t fond of him. He should have personality conflicts with at least some of the members of the X-Men, and unless I’m wrong, he doesn’t. I’d like to see him very close to a few of his fellow mutants (perhaps Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus and Banshee, since they all started together), be on speaking terms, but little else, with the majority of them, and have a few that he simply rubs the wrong way. Your take?

Oooh…what if James Howlett was the guy who originally started Weapon X (or whatever that program is called now)? In fact, what if it was something he did in response to the Nazi buildup…like the Canadian version of the Super Soldier formula, but much more clandestine. After all the torture and abuse, all Wolverine can remember are the tales that Howlett told him and he’s able to use those as a backstory when he eventually escapes from captivity. I don’t know if you follow Mad Men at all, but the main character in that show had a somewhat similar situation. He was stationed in a remote area of Korea when their encampment was struck by mortar fire. The blast killed his commanding officer, burning him so badly that he was unrecognizable. The main character had an awful childhood, so he saw this as his opportunity to change things. He switched dog tags with his commanding officer and started a new life when he got stateside.

Now that I’ve ruined a major plot point for one of TV’s greatest shows, let’s get back to Wolverine.

I think there’s reason to assume this could be possible. And it sets Wolverine up as more of a sympathetic character…he has that one dark secret that he’s trying desperately to hide from the rest of the world. He’s ashamed of the “easy path” he’s taken to try to get his life back. It’s a little convoluted, but what isn’t in the X-world?

Anyway, back to the friends thing. I never really thought about Wolverine’s relationships with all the young girls on the team. On paper, it sounds pretty creepy. And it does diminish the “bad boy” quality of the character. In the books though, it comes across like one of those cartoons where the little dog is trying to make friends with the big dog who barely acknowledges his existence. The girls see a father figure that may be able to protect them and teach them. Wolverine sees another person that he has to keep out of trouble for the sake of the team. It’s a weird parasitic relationship and comics seem to thrive on that kind of melodrama.

In reality, I agree with your bigger point. These girls would be reluctant to get close to the brute of the team. And he wouldn’t pay any attention to them at all, most likely sneering whenever they insist on tagging along on an adventure. Better yet, he’d probably roar that they didn’t belong in action at all. It’s like how the popular clique thinks that they’re the only people in the school. Just a natural pecking order.

However, we can’t dismiss the friendships that he has made. It would be odd to have him do a 180 now. So we have to deal with the Kitty Prydes and the Jubilees. Neither of them is particularly close to him right now, so it’s easy to just let those ties fade away. I do like your idea of having the mutants almost segregated by team…where Wolverine associates only with the “new” X-Men while the original team keeps him at arm’s length or just flat-out distrusts him. And the new recruits hold him in awe while he chooses to ignore them.

I’d like to see him fly off the handle a bit more too. The berserker rages have all but disappeared. The half-cocked, male pride angle has been abandoned. I’d like to see Wolverine acting a bit less rational and more spontaneous. And that whole “had a Japanese bride and a kid” thing has to just go away. Seriously.

That sort of brings us to the rogues gallery (because the only Wolverine enemy I can think of is Silver Samurai). Is there anything to go on here? Does The Hand count as an enemy? Can he claim any of the X-Men’s enemies as his own? I’m so tired of Sabretooth that I don’t even really want to talk about him. All I know is that Marvel’s editorial team thought that Wolverine was going to fade away quickly, but Chris Claremont liked the idea of a feral warrior so he created Sabretooth as an enemy of Iron Fist in that character’s solo title. Sabretooth is basically a blond, slightly taller Logan. Lame.

I like the idea of Hewlett being someone whose identity Wolverine took. I think it would add some mystery and danger back to the character, who’s a lot less impressive when you see him as the James Hewlett depicted in Origins. I also think it drops the character a little more back into the realm of the relatable, since he’s not been around for 150 years anymore.

As to your other point, I agree that Wolverine’s Rogues Gallery is laughable. Sabretooth is indeed his biggest foe, but considering that Sabretooth is almost as overused as Wolverine, he’s not a good foe. I had forgotten about the Silver Samurai, but isn’t he a good guy now? Even if he isn’t, I’m not thrilled with Wolverine’s staunchest foe being someone with an Asian background, as I’d like to move the character out of that region of the world and back to his homeland of Canada. I would count the Hand as an enemy, but not a particularly interesting one. They exist only so he can slice and dice any number of their operatives, and there will still be more waiting in the wings.

I believe that you could consider the Wendigo to be part of his Rogues Gallery, and that’s suitably Canadian, but the Wendigo is a dull foe, and not nearly smart enough to present an interesting threat for more than an issue or two. Wasn’t Cyber considered a Wolverine foe? He never seemed to have much going for him, except for the fact that he looked neat when Sam Keith drew him. Yeesh, that is one pathetic roster of baddies; it makes Superman’s Rogues Gallery of bald scientists and wacky inter-dimensional imps look pretty good.

I believe that Sabretooth was intended to be Wolverine’s opposite number (actually, rumor has it he was intended to be Wolverine’s father when first introduced, which could have been more interesting), but I’m not a big fan of opposite numbers as archenemies. I don’t find Venom vs Spider-Man to be an interesting match-up. I much prefer when opposites clash, and in this instance, I think that Wolverine needs to face off against a patient, calculating, schemer. He doesn’t need to be a Lex Luthor type, with no powers but great scientific know-how. He can be quite powerful in his own right, but he needs to be the type who doesn’t rattle or get upset. He needs to be able to make long range plans and he needs to be able to change them as circumstances warrant. This would put him at odds with Wolverine’s berserker rages and notorious temper.

I’d also like to add a villain from the general Marvel Rogues Gallery: Viper. She has worked with Silver Samurai, and the two of them clashed with Wolverine in the past. I think she’s perfect against Wolverine as she has some of the espionage background that mirrors Wolverine’s own background in that field, and she also is a fierce and savage opponent, just as Wolverine is. If the Samurai has not reformed and can fight with her against Wolverine, they’d be a perfect team.

Dragging X-Foes into Wolverine’s Rogues Gallery could be tricky. Sure, he has reason to hate Magneto and Apocalypse, who have both wronged him severely, but they’re not really the sort to fixate on one mutant. Perhaps it would be better to use one of the lesser known, and lesser used, X-Villains. Personally, I’d grab one or two of the Marauders and flesh them out in the pages of Wolverine. Most of them never really got personalities under Claremont’s pen when they were first created, and a lot of work could be done on them if they were given space to breathe in Wolverine’s solo title. Wolverine could probably lay claim to Donald Pierce, Lady Deathstrike and the Reavers as his own villains, but unfortunately, none of them are very interesting.

Ugh. His villains are a sad state of affairs. Any ideas on your end?

I was thinking along the same lines as you. Never been a fan of those “same but different” match-ups. I think that’s why I generally get bored with primary arch-enemies anyway. They start out as strong foils for the heroes, but over the course of time both the hero and the villain get tweaked until they’re basically mirror images of each other. I mean, Lex Luthor spent some time in that armor of his in an attempt to go toe-to-toe with Superman…Red Skull has been pumped up until he’s basically Cap without the shield…even Green Goblin’s powers were increased to better coincide with Spider-Man’s. I would much rather see a fight between folks who take different approaches, have different strengths and weaknesses and are able to employ tactics that may confuse or distract.

Unfortunately, Wolverine’s foes are a bunch of weak reflections of him. Like I said, Sabretooth is basically Logan with a mullet and some lifts. Lady Deathstrike is Logan with boobs. Cyber quickly became Wolverine’s indestructible brawling counterpart. Viper may not be a bad idea…she’s someone who has resources and can throw some bodies at Wolvie. And she plays in the same dark corners as Logan.

The perfect villain for Wolverine to face off against would be someone who is very intelligent, has a unique power set and doesn’t get rattled easily. We need a Zen counterpart to Wolverine’s berserker. This may sound like a crazy idea, but what about Vanisher? He’s constantly getting himself involved in some of the more back-alley crimes that land in Wolverine’s wheelhouse…associating with drug cartels, thieves and smugglers. Vanisher is a smart guy and his powers would confound Wolverine. Could be a fun way to bring one of the X-Men’s oldest foes up to a more worthy level.

Of course, we’ve talked about Grey Gargoyle too. He may not be a long term opponent, but he would definitely inflict some damage on Wolverine that would be felt for a long time. I could even see them facing off against each other after we’ve diminished Wolvie’s powers…right up until we kill off Gargoyle. And some interesting things could spring out of that as well. I’m not a huge fan of legacy villains, but maybe Gargoyle has a child or family member who would pick up the mantle? Are there any long-time associates of his that may seek revenge on Wolvie? We could push Wolverine off into his own mythos, his own corner of the Marvel Universe. Granted, some new villains will need to be created at some time, but if Wolverine is that old (even if our new origin is able to shave off a century or so) he should have some interaction with some of the older villains in the Marvel Universe.

Those are my first thoughts. Follow up?

Not much to follow up with, as I like your ideas. I agree that the Vanisher has a lot of potential, potential which Marvel is just now beginning to explore. He’s a smart guy, and he’s a planner, which makes him perfect against Wolverine. The Vanisher has to be a planner, as he’s basically useless in a fight, although his teleporting ability could be used to some effect in a brawl (I think the only time I’ve ever seen that happen is when he took on the original five X-Men way back in his first appearance in X-Men #2. Basically, it’s a question of getting your foes to use their powers against each other by teleporting in and out among them). I think he should definitely be added to the Rogues Gallery.

With Vanisher, Grey Gargoyle (and making him a legacy would be fine; Marvel is able to do that with their villains, even if they can’t with their heroes), Viper, and possibly the Silver Samurai, we’re slowly building up a small group of foes for him. I’d still advocate taking a few of the Marauders and using them against him. I’d choose a duo, Scalphunter and Arclight. Arclight had a romantic interest in Scalphunter, so perhaps she’s working with him as a way to try and make something happen. They both have a history as members of the military and/or special forces teams, so perhaps they met Wolverine sometime in the past and have some sort of specific issue with him. They’re also both tough characters who can go toe to toe with Wolverine for a nice big slugfest, in ways that none of our other villains (except the Gargoyle) really can. That gives us seven new villains for him (even if some of them work in teams) and I like that.

Hmmm. That gives us history, allies and enemies. Have we finished dissecting and rebuilding Marvel’s most overused character?

Aside from shaving his back and putting him on a Nicorette regimen, we’ve done all we can.

I like it.

Now if only Marvel would take the hint…


Marvel and DC: The Horror, the Horror!

Oct-28-08

It’s almost Halloween and so popular culture is awash with the sound of screaming, as television shows, movies, and lots of internet sites use the holiday as an excuse to release their version of horror on a very suspecting public. Comics, however…well, except for frequent mentions of the Rutland Halloween Parade back in the 1970s, comics don’t often take time out of their busy schedules to reflect on many holidays. Christmas will sometimes be mentioned, and there are even often special one-shot comics published for that holiday, but Halloween? Not so often.

In fact, horror seems to get somewhat short shrift in the superhero comics universes. There are certainly horror comics being published, and there have been for decades. In fact, one can look to the horror comics published by the late, lamented EC Comics back in the 1940s and early 1950s (like Tales from the Crypt) as being partly responsible for the direction that the comics industry has taken. I’m sure we all know the story: the EC Comics were rather graphic, and they were some of the primary evidence used by Dr. Frederic Wertham when he tried to convince Congress, and the world, that comics were a destructive influence on children. His crusade led to the development of the Comics Code Authority, and some rather stringent regulations that made horror comics all but impossible to produce, since almost any facet of an effective horror comic had been forbidden by the Code.

At first glance, some people might consider some of Marvel’s titles from the early 1960s to be horror comics. Titles such as Tales to Astonish, before invaded by the spandex set, often featured stories of hideous monsters threatening the human race. Still, these are normally classified as monster comics, mostly because there were few scares to be had in these tales, and there was no atmosphere, no sense of foreboding, that a horror comic needs. No, it would not be until the next decade that horror comics would begin to return, and this time they’d start melding with the superhero lines of both companies.

In the 1970s both Marvel and DC had begun to test the boundaries of the Code, and one of those areas was in the area of horror comics. In fact, the 1970s were something of a Golden Age for superhero horror, as both companies launched numerous supernatural or horror comics. Some of the titles, particularly on the DC side, were separate from their superhero output. Tales of the Unexpected, Ghosts, House of Mystery and House of Secrets were titles that had no crossover with DC’s stable of popular superheroes (of course, some of these titles would be yanked into DC’s Vertigo line in the 1990’s, but at the time they were originally published, I don’t believe DC foresaw any potential crossover value). However, DC was still bringing horror to its main superhero line, with stories about Deadman, Swamp Thing and the Phantom Stranger.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, horror was being integrated into the superhero line much more forcibly, with the best example being the long running Tomb of Dracula title, which introduced the vampire lord to the Marvel mainstream, where he fought such foes as Dr. Strange and Thor. The Man-Thing was also introduced around this time, as was Ghost Rider in his own title. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, is that Marvel began publishing stories with a horror bent in their mainstream titles. The Defenders, while perhaps not a horror title, featured many situations involving the supernatural which bordered on horror; Dr. Strange also saw his adventures take an even more gothic turn; new characters such as Moon Knight encountered horror themed villains, such as Werewolf by Night; and even perennial favorite Spider-Man got mixed up with Morbius, the Living Vampire.

Oddly, as the 70s drew to a close, horror comics disappeared from both companies, and the characters associated with horror, such as Deadman and Ghost Rider, soon saw their books cancelled and their appearances dwindle. Since that decade, horror has been mostly forgotten by the big superhero publishers. DC has been successful with horror in the decades since, but almost always under their Vertigo line, which is somewhat divorced from their superheroes. Marvel tried to revive horror in the mid-90s with a line they branded The Midnight Sons, which included such 70s heroes as Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider and Morbius, and introduced new heroes such as Terror and a group called the Redeemers. However, those comics were not successful, commercially or critically.

What do the two major superhero publishers currently have in the horror genre? What has happened to horror in comics? Is it possible to mix horror and superheroes? Were any of these comics, or the concepts behind them any good? That’s what we’ll be discussing this week.

My thoughts are a bit all over the place on this one, so please bear with me. First, let’s talk about the overarching view of horror in other media. Movies and TV are able to handle horror very well because of the movement, the ambiance and the vocal aspects of their presentation. These tools allow tension to be built and emotions to be exploited. Movies and TV relish their ability to delve into the unexpected, which is much harder to do on a series of flat pages that can be perused to avoid any sort of anticipation. The “reveal” that sparks a gasp or a scream on screen is blunted, if not completely eliminated, in comics. And the authenticity of real people in real (even if exaggerated) situations can never be duplicated in print. I don’t care how good the creators are.

That being said, I still think there’s an opportunity for comics to dig into the surreal aspects of horror. The series in the 1970s really wallowed in the macabre and a sense of black humor. Of course, this was also a time of social experimentation and by using supernatural…and, at times, Satanic…themes, these comics were really playing off the vibe of the era. The films of the 80s seemed to revolve around extreme violence and body counts, which played into the selfish excess of the times. And today’s best horror films are built around victims being trapped in settings that are completely out of their control. It’s the slow, torturous plotlines that remind us of the helpless feeling we have in the world environment, claustrophobic and panicky.

It’s funny how some genres want to offer followers an escape from reality, while horror firmly plants itself in the ethic of “no escape.”

Like John pointed out, there’s never really been a consistent horror comic in the stable of either Marvel or DC. They’ve had their moments and certain books have come and gone over the years, but nothing has taken a strong hold on the sales chart. The strange thing is that every time one of the tried and true characters is brought back, the relaunch is often greeted with relatively high readership (Ghost Rider, Moon Knight) at first, only to see the numbers trail off dramatically. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that a lot of readers like the characters themselves, but the storylines often become repetitive or just lose their momentum. You can’t keep up the “ooh…spooky” feeling for too long before it becomes a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario. People start to not care.

I believe that the best usage of these characters is as Marvel has done with them. Dracula shows up every few years to advance a plot. Blade and Dr. Strange work on the fringe of the Marvel Universe, knocking back villains and threats that other heroes just don’t understand or can’t be bothered to care about. However, I feel that, if used correctly and sparingly, these characters can build a solid niche for themselves. Worked into the existing continuities, they can exist side by side with the other popular heroes and villains. It adds a depth to the characters that relegating them to simply horror usage seems to remove.

John and I have already offered our own horror-skewed revamps of both the Defenders and Doctor Strange. I’m not as familiar with the DC side of things (aside from Swamp Thing…sorry for the pun), but John and I promise a deeper look into Vertigo in the near future.

Any sort of reintroduction or revamp must take into account the current zeitgeist. The Son of Satan from the 1970s can’t be played the same way in the 2000s or it comes off as hokey and flat. The problems these characters face can’t be the same rote Gothic mansions populated by creepy spirits and deranged groundskeepers. And you can’t simply invent a foreboding dimension with shambling monsters and expect it to portray the same threat level as it did decades ago.

The biggest obstacle when trying to place horror types next to superhero types is that fleeting element of believability. The best horror and suspense stories have to be believable to be truly frightening and having some dude flying by in tights and punching zombies’ faces off really takes away that suspension of disbelief. That’s another reason why the threats need to be tweaked.

John and I wanted to introduce a young Steampunk villain for Doctor Strange. With a lack of morals and a twisted worldview brought on by a fascination with technology and the past, this character could do some truly creepy things and really set himself up as a new type of horrific bad guy. Creepy is the key word…perhaps even “unsettling” would be a better description. I think DC has done some interesting things in their world, though terribly misguided and poorly timed, with all the grisly murders that have taken place in recent years. Sure, stuffing women in refrigerators, developing a plot around the rape and murder of a hero’s wife and even having a vigilante-type tear a criminal in half in full public view, may be a bit extreme for mainstream superhero fare, but I think some of those outlandish elements could play into a new horror theme rather well.

Critics have labelled these new horror movies as “torture porn” and I tend to agree for the most part. However, I find the randomness of some of these situations to be fascinating. I look at a movie like The Hills Have Eyes or Funny Games and I see everyday people plunged into pure chaos by the seemingly coin-flipped decisions of their captors. The over-the-top gore of a Friday the 13th is laughable in comparison to the psychological horror of The Strangers, where the antagonists are always two steps ahead of their victims. Just when you think the good guys have come up with an ingenious way to escape their situation, something goes wrong and that elation you felt is instantly replaced by an uneasy nausea in your gut.

Like I said, it’s nearly impossible to replicate something like that on the page, but adjusting for the times is a clear first step. Let’s update not only the characters, but the settings and subsequent consequences as well. A good horror yarn can be stitched together with a truly credible threat and a seeming lack of viable contingency plans. Put the heroes in real peril and make them work for their escape.

That’s probably the other problem with trying to fully integrate horror types with hero types: the heroes never lose. Kinda makes for a lame horror movie, huh?

It’s interesting that you mention how times were different in the 1970s. That is so true. It’s often said that morals and values have lessened over time, and one can do and say things today that were unthinkable thirty years ago. In some areas, that’s certainly true. Besides the relentless onslaught of blood and gore that one sees in DC comics now, and sometimes at Marvel, there’s also the use of such words as ass and damn, which would never have seen print in 1970s mainstream comics. However, there are certain things that were okay to print back in the 1970s that one couldn’t print now, and one of those things was Satanism. I recently (just this year) reread the entire run of Ghost Rider, from his beginnings back in 1972 to some of the most recent issues. That series in the 1970s was absolutely packed with Satanists! It seemed like every third character in the book identified as such! I have to believe that, when it was published, it seemed to be a relatively minor point, but now, it stands out most tellingly. Heck, Marvel comics today don’t even want to admit that Satan exists, despite the fact that he was a villain in their comics for years!

Anyway, yes, times change. And horror is very difficult to do around the hero set. Just about every hero has probably had a few spooky adventures, but you really have to change the tone of their book for a few issues to pull it off effectively. Otherwise, supernatural elements stop being harbingers of horror and just become superheroes or supervillains with drab costumes. When Marvel tried their relaunch of horror in the 1990s, the Midnight Sons, they separated them from the rest of the Marvel Universe. Yes, they were still in continuity with the Avengers and Fantastic Four, but it was pretty clear that those characters wouldn’t be making guest appearances in the Midnight Sons titles, and vice versa. This is one of the reasons that Dr. Strange is so horribly cast as a member of the New Avengers; the Avengers are too mainstream, and while on the team, Strange becomes just another superhero. With the Defenders, he could maintain an air of mystery and atmosphere, because that team was on the fringe and had horror elements as well, but with the Avengers, all of that gets washed away.

With all of that being said, I still think that there is a place for horror in comics. A lot of people like to bash poor Howard Mackie, who wrote a few comics that were not well received (including a run on Spider-Man), but I would take the first 20 issues of Ghost Rider that he wrote, starting back in 1990, and use them as an example of how to do horror in comics. He kept guest stars to a minimum, and he used mostly new villains, all of them dark and somewhat twisted. Moreover, when those guest stars did drop by, they were forced to adopt the darker outlook of the book. When X-Factor made an appearance, they were there to deal with rogue mutants, most of them hideous monsters living underground. When Dr. Strange stopped for a visit, he was allowed to be mysterious and we didn’t delve into his head. Much of the credit no doubt goes to the excellent artists Javier Saltares and Mark Texiera and their colorist (I can’t find the colorist’s name online, and I don’t have my issues here, so whomever the colorist is, forgive me for not knowing your name), who kept the book extremely dark. One of the neatest things they did was color the spaces between and around the panels black; there was no real white on any of the pages, making everything seem dark and claustrophobic.

Unfortunately, I think where the series lost its way was around issue 25, when they began to introduce more and more demonic villains and the human characters started to get lost and pushed into the background. As Jason mentioned, it’s difficult to do traditional scares in a comic, but they can make you anxious and uncomfortable. The early issues of Ghost Rider did that by building up a supporting cast and not being afraid to kill them when necessary. As a reader, you were never sure if someone might survive to the next issue. Once those human characters were gone, it really just became any other superhero book, except with demons and vampires substituting for more traditional heroes and villains.

In the end, I do think a horror comic is possible, and would be a welcome addition to the comics racks. You need a dark, atmospheric art style. You need to keep the character’s interaction with the rest of their superhero universe to a minimum. It’s fine to acknowledge that all the characters are in the same universe and guest stars can work, but it can’t be too much, and the guest stars have to be brought into the horror genre (i.e. bright primary colors on their costumes need to be muted and their more outrageous abilities need to be toned down). There needs to be a strong, human cast, people who can be threatened by the darkness around them, and characters whose deaths will be meaningful to the series. Wholesale slaughter is not the way to go; it decimates your cast, and it cheapens death. Occasional death is the ticket, as it makes death unpredictable, and suggests that no one is safe.

I think these tricks could even be used in mainstream comics for a few issues, just to shakes things up a little. Batman is a perfect example of a character whose comic (one of them, at least; goodness knows he has enough) should be spotlighting a horror story now and again, since so many of his villains lend themselves to that. Still, horror can happen to anyone. Captain America, one of the brightest, most cheerful heroes out there, could star in a good horror story. Actually, he almost did; when Roger Stern and John Byrne were the creators on his series, they pitted him against a vampire named Baron Blood. Those few issues were awfully close to the definition of a horror story, and might very well qualify. There was mystery, a darker art style, a good cast of humans who you believed could die…..it’s possible anywhere.

And hey, wasn’t Cap turned into a werewolf for a little while? That story was pretty horrible…

I hadn’t thought about the crossover aspect of heroes and horror as specifically as you just pointed out and I think you make an excellent point. Dr. Strange is NOT an Avenger. I don’t care how much Bendis likes him. His power set is antithetical to most superheroes. His demeanor is much more reserved. And his battles, both internal and external, are much more private and singular. Having him crack jokes with Wolverine makes him seem more like an amusement park caricature than the Sorcerer Supreme. And therein lies the rub.

When you import superheroes into horror settings, they stand out like a sore thumb. Brightly colored tights and abilities that include stretching their bodies, turning into ice and shooting arrows at robots makes them seem like a joke. Conversely, shining the big spotlight on a magic man by dropping him into a hi-tech headquarters littered with public figures flying around and saving lives really exposes him as some sort of hokey kid’s birthday act. They are two great tastes that don’t taste so great together…like ice cream and tuna.

I agree that any successful integration by a horror title into a mainstream superhero world must focus on moderation. Not only do guest stars need to be limited in general, but the ones that are allowed have to be very specifically chosen as well. Spider-Man works as a visitor in a Dr. Strange book, Captain America doesn’t. Batman could blend into the atmosphere of a Swamp Thing issue, Superman could not. I think the interaction of all those characters that don’t fit should be limited to one of those conversational mentions in passing. Y’know…Brother Voodoo and Hellstorm are assembling the proper materials for an exorcism and one of them cracks wise about the Fantastic Four not being so fantastic. That has its place and reminds readers of the bigger world outside this insulated and secretive story.

I also like the idea of a disposable supporting cast. Too often, situations arise where you know that no one is in any real danger and that strips the suspense out of the story. There is no way to play favorites in a true horror genre. Granted, the title character is probably safe, but that’s only because the story needs to be told through the eyes of a consistent figure. If I were an editor, everyone else would be fair game. The powers that be can always figure it out over in the superhero side of things anyway.

My last point would be to agree with what you’ve described as far as tone goes. The right artists (including ink and colors) are key to the success of a strong horror title. Just take a look at how Mike Mignola has developed his style over the years, from his early days at DC to his current Hellboy output (which Alan Moore has described as “Jack Kirby meets German Expressionism”). The stable of artists he has assembled for the Dark Horse books, including himself, Duncan Fegredo and Guy Davis, are excellent for that genre. Texeira has certainly made a name for himself with that kind of work, as have Angel Medina, Frazer Irving, Doug Mahnke, Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben to name a few.

We’re in agreement that a good horror title could exist in the Marvel or DC stable. Should we try to flesh one out or provide a somewhat detailed list of what we think could be done? Maybe even throw some characters at each other and see how we could turn them into horror stories?


Comics Reviews: Who, What, Where, How and Why

Oct-22-08

Since Jason and I began talking about comics, lo those many months ago, we haven’t really done any comics reviews. There are a couple of reasons for it, and he and I have discussed the issue at length. One of the reasons we’ve been shying away from doing actual comics reviews is that they are difficult to do properly. It’s very easy to pick a comic and discuss it, but so often what happens is that someone says, “Yeah, man, that was awesome!” or “Yo, dude, that sucked!” and there’s not much more to the conversation. You’re getting people who are simply skimming the surface of the comic, and picking out the most obvious successes or flaws in the work, but they’re not giving a reader anything of substance. I’m not really sure how much substance we have around here, but if we’re going to take the time to examine a comic in detail, I’d like to think that we’ll be able to explore that work in depth, for good or ill.

Another reason we’ve been reluctant to dive into reviewing comics is that neither one of us considers ourselves experts. We’ve been reading comics for years, and we’re both bright fellows, but I do not, by any means, have formal training in criticism. I am also not much of an art critic. I can normally delve into the other aspects of a comic (plot, pacing, characterization and the like) with at least a modicum of intelligent discourse, but when it comes to art, I fall more into the “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. I certainly have artists whom I prefer and a few whom I avoid, and I can articulate a few reasons why that is, but I’m not an expert. I know a lot about the field of comics (and some other fields), but I’m never sure if I’m exactly qualified to comment on the work of others in a public forum.

Finally, Jason and I have been concerned about insulting creators. Whether or not I like the art of Ron Lim has nothing to do with whether or not I like the man himself; how could I say whether or not I like him, since I don’t know him. When commenting on a creative endeavor like a comic, sometimes the work and the creator behind the work both become subjects of derision during the discussion. Jason and I have both made some negative (some may say snarky) comments about the work of certain creators in passing on the blog, but we try to focus on the work and not the person. Hopefully our readers will keep us honest in the future, as we begin to start doing some actual comics reviews.

The reason that I’ve written this overly long introduction to the idea of bringing reviews to this site on occasion is because I was one of the many people watching the recent blogosphere discussion that resulted when Noah Berlatsky at “The Hooded Utilitarian” blog reviewed 100 Bullets. Berlatsky was not a fan of the issues of 100 Bullets that he read, which is, of course, his right. What started the brou-ha-ha is that, during the course of his review, he complained about the art of Eduardo Risso, using one particular cover as an example; a cover that Risso did not draw (Dave Johnson did).

Whoops! This mistake quickly attracted the attention of others. Heidi MacDonald of “The Beat” was probably the first to notice and comment on the error. She rightly points out that he used a different artist’s work to complain about one artist, but then she spends most of the post defending Eduardo Risso, which seems to detract from her main focus; Berlatsky made a mistake. From there, things snowballed, with others joining in to condemn Berlatsky, comics writer Mark Waid getting involved, and generally unpleasant comments being thrown back and forth.

Why do I find this interesting? Well, this hits on some of the concerns that Jason and I had about doing reviews in the first place. Berlatsky made an error that I hope we wouldn’t make, but it’s not something that can be ruled out (although certainly this has made me more determined to check my facts before I post something in the future). Second, Berlatsky got negative comments from the blogosphere (although he did have his defenders), and many of those comments seemed to stem from his dislike of 100 Bullets. His review of the series was snarky, and that seems to have been what ultimately ran him into trouble; by confusing the artwork, he left an opening where fans of the series could defend it. Could his review have been less snarky? Sure, but let’s be honest, snarky reviews are more fun to read and to write. Heck, our entire website is built on snark (ok, maybe not built on, but certainly snark is one of our basic four food groups).

The Berlatsky situation made me think it was important to preface any actual reviews with a few comments and answering the most crucial questions available to us: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why.

Who: Jason and I. We’ll be doing the reviews, and that’s important, because different people perceive things in different ways. Reviews are subjective; I can give you every reason why you should love a certain piece of work, and in the end, it may just not appeal to you. I loaned Jeff Smith’s wonderful series Bone to a friend of mine, thinking she would love it. She was completely underwhelmed by it, and couldn’t finish the series. It simply didn’t appeal to her. Sometimes, this sort of thing will happen, so it’s important to make it clear that, no matter how eloquently you praise or attack a series, some people will have the opposite view. Don’t let it shake you up too much. Let us know if you agree or disagree with what we’re saying.

What: Sometimes we’ll be choosing things that are associated with a current media adaptation, since people are more likely to be searching such works out. Sometimes it may be things we particularly like or dislike, in the hopes of drawing readers to them, or warning people away. In the end, we hope to be choosing works that will be of interest to our readers.

When: As with everything else here, there will be no set schedule. I can’t see us doing reviews more than once every few weeks however. In the end, we are not a review site. There are plenty of those, and I’m not sure the blogosphere really needs one more, although I’d like to think that our dual viewpoint allows us to bring something different to the table.

Where: We’ll be picking works from all over the comics universe. Yes, superheroes will have more than their fair share of space, but this will be a good place for us to draw focus to other works, some of them out of the mainstream and some of them dancing at the edges of mainstream.

How: Oh, with snark. I’m not sure we have another way we can write, and again, it’s more fun for both us and you. However, like I said earlier, we’ll try to comment on the work and not the creator.

Why: We’ll be reviewing things because we hope to provide readers with information on whether or not a comic is worth their time and money.

In the end, we rely on all of you to let us know what you think. More reviews? Less reviews? Specific things you’d like to see reviewed? Agree with our comments? Disagree? As always, let us know.

Let me chime in first by saying that I agree wholeheartedly with everything that John has put forward so far in this post. I would like to confess that one of the major reasons we don’t do more reviews, beyond the fact that there is already an overwhelming abundance of comic review sites (for both good and bad), is that neither John nor I read many monthly comics anymore. I know that probably instantly places us in some sort of lower tier in the eyes of many fans out there, but the simple truth is that…and I don’t want to get off on some sort of scolding of the industry here…most books that interest us, whether for plot or characters, seem to be written solely for the trade consumption.

The comics medium has changed drastically in the last 10 years or so (to a greater degree in the last 3 or 4 years actually) and the pacing, both in the exposition and the action, has brought everything to the point where I usually only buy things once a month now instead of every Wednesday. And the number of titles I’m interested in (at least on the superhero side of things, which seems to be our bread-and-butter here) has dwindled from a few dozen to…just a few. Amazon gets more of my business these days than any neighborhood store, because of increased availability, lack of urgency and simplicity of shopping.

And don’t even get me started on how much the online community has ruined, or nearly removed, the anticipation and suspense of the monthly comic cycle. But that is neither here nor there for this discussion, so let’s get back on topic, shall we?

The recent revelation by JG Jones concerning his output on the Final Crisis miniseries at DC is another example of how online criticism can really go beyond the pale. Brian Wood pointed me to a CBR thread that facilitated the figurative drawing-and-quartering of Mr. Jones in the eyes of the fanboys. There’s no need for that kind of vitriol in any realm. I’d be tempted to go off on a political rant here about how our country is increasingly divided and angry, but that would bore everyone. Suffice it to say that personally attacking someone for drawing (or, in this case, NOT drawing) pictures on paper is both uncalled for and downright idiotic. If you aren’t happy with the finished product, don’t buy it.

NOTE: Hell, if I were you I’d be more concerned with the confusing, meandering, languidly-developing, inside-speaking, continuity-muddled plot of the series more than how it’s graphically represented. No amount of Picasso or DaVinci can polish that mess.

It’s completely inappropriate to praise someone for their work as long as it arrives to your liking and then immediately lash out at them once that work stops arriving. JG’s style didn’t change. His dedication to his craft isn’t lacking. He merely doesn’t have the time…and has, at the least, realized that and confessed as such. I’ve met JG Jones. I’ve talked to him. He’s not some horrible creature hiding in the dark and plotting ways to screw up your Wednesday buying habits. He’s an amazing artist who deserves some appreciation for the work he has produced. Admire it or don’t, but never cast stones at him for admitting a weakness or a mistake.

Now John Byrne? That’s another story altogether. ZING!

Since Jason mentioned it, I’ll confess that I don’t read ANY monthly comics pamphlets at this time, and haven’t for about two or three years. I buy five to seven trade paperbacks a month, some of them current, and that more than keeps me spending enough money on comics (I still support my local comics shop when I buy them; yes, I could get them cheaper elsewhere, but I always prefer to support locally owned small businesses, and Ralph – my local comic store proprietor – is a heckuva guy!). I also spend a lot of time online, and thanks to the fact that no surprises are allowed in comics anymore and must instead be announced in various internet sites months before publication, I can follow the plots of any series I wish (and often large chunks of issues are posted to read; I do NOT pirate comics and don’t recommend pirating anything online. Yes, it may make me seem old and fuddly-duddly, but I can live with that). I’d like to think I’m quite caught up with the goings-on in the superhero universes, and then I read most of these comics a few months in the trades after the pamphlet reading public.

As for the JG Jones news, I can’t say I’m surprised. I absolutely love his artwork; I think he may be one of the best pencillers out there. However, he’s not someone who works quickly, so why oh why would DC have hired him to do this miniseries in the first place? I have something of a gripe against so many comics being released late; I think it hurts the industry when it happens, and it can certainly hurt a lot of comics. Often, it’s the pencillers who get the bad rap for working slowly, although that’s not always the case (Kevin Smith, my peepers are squarely trained at you!), but really, what is management thinking? I’m not saying not to hire JG Jones; that would be crazy! The guy is good! But don’t hire him to do the pivotal miniseries on which your entire superhero line rests. There are plenty of excellent pencillers to do that series. Let him do an ancillary miniseries, if he wants to be part of Final Crisis; a miniseries that isn’t central to the plot or can stand on its own.

What surprised me even more was who DC chose to replace him: Doug Mahnke. Doug Mahnke may have one of the strongest individual drawing styles I’ve ever seen but that style is very much removed from Jones’ more realistic style. I love Mahnke when he’s doing things a little off target from the mainstream: Major Bummer and the Frankenstein issues of Seven Soldiers are brilliant. However, I’ve never enjoyed the issues he did of JLA. I simply don’t think he works on the big team titles and I think his artwork on the last issue of Final Crisis will seem grossly out of place. However, to quote Peter David, “But I digress…”

So, yes, attacking someone like JG Jones is silly. The man’s doing his job to the best of his ability and he’s not trying to ruin anyone’s life. That’s the sort of thing we won’t be engaging in. But, how did I know you’d have a John Byrne comment before we finished? Of course, Byrne is an example of how some creators put themselves out there in a public forum, and at times almost beg people to dislike them. I still try to tread carefully in those cases, but I’m sure that we’ll run into those situations, particularly in the case of an outspoken creator like Byrne (although he seems to have been somewhat quiet lately).

Yes, I will never attack John Byrne unless he asks me to…or I feel that his online musings are just begging to be mocked. And even then, it’s more like this:

Granted, that image works just as well for nearly every naysaying fool posting on the web. That’s most likely the problem with the majority of poorly executed comic reviews: they’re set forth by nameless, faceless people who are only seeking the hive-minded approval of other nameless, faceless people. The anonymity and temporary status afforded by message boards and blogs allows people to say stupid things with nearly zero accountability or retribution. Spit out whatever mean-spirited thing you’d like and I guarantee someone will read it and laugh, or worse, try to one-up your horrendous attitude and insults.

We shall tread carefully. We are under no illusion that anyone out there should agree with us. Heck, we often don’t agree with each other. But at least we aim to provide lucid grounding for that disagreement, with examples that back up those opinions and a willingness to concede the smaller differences. There shall be no name-calling or references to each other’s mothers and farm animals. We will never threaten to hunt each other down or punch each other in our respective faces because of words exchanged on an imaginary playground in a digital land. Besides, we still meet for dinner at least once a month and that would just make things awkward.

That was digression #1…

I think it’s also important to point out that our focus is unabashedly on the superhero genre. Sure, we read other things and those things influence the way we view and read comics in general. But, and I’m not sure John illuminated this point enough, we will always write with an eye towards the whole hero/villain scene. If you don’t like that, or wish to bemoan the societal downfall of the genre, do it elsewhere. Sure, superhero comics can be immature and stunted and obtuse and mired in the various cliques and coteries of the industry (and I’m sure we’ll call for their heads once or twice), but they helped form our childhoods. I, for one, will never fully turn my back on the colorful exploits of these powerful characters.

And digression #2…

Of course, by the time this post is disseminated to the general public, I’m sure that someone else will say something stupidly critical that we can call out as the “wrong way” of doing things. If you think the plotlines in certain comics are predictable, take a look at some of the “fan” reactions when you have a spare week and some self-loathing to spare.

I shan’t continue to belabor these points, but instead I shall take this opportunity to disagree with Jason, at least a little.  I agree that, yes, superheroes are our main focus, and no, I don’t feel like I need to apologize for them.  There’s certainly a ton of absolute rubbish in the genre, but there’s some great stuff too, and it doesn’t take too much searching to find it.  That being said, I do plan on branching out a little, if in reviews only, to touch on some of the non-superpowered comics out there.  Now, Jason left the door open for that, at least somewhat, by saying we’d focus on the hero/villain thing, and if that’s our focus, it allows us to still do all sorts of non-superhero comics.  While I’ll always love superheroes, there’s some other amazing stuff out there that I’d like to discuss with our readers, from the almost mainstream Usagi Yojimbo or Queen and Country, to perhaps the slightly more obscure Action Philosophers, Scott Pilgrim or Barry Ween

But otherwise, I’m in total agreement with Jason.  I’m not sure when the first reviews will show up here (perhaps next week), but at least the groundwork is laid.


John and Jason’s Agreed Upon 20 Things Every Superhero Comic Collection Needs

Oct-15-08

We promise to stop milking this idea and move on after this post, but now that we’ve both given our picks for the 20 things every superhero comic collection needs (which are both quite good, and any items on there are worth your time) we thought we’d bring it all together for one final post, with things we both agree on. Here you go:

1. Starman: I won’t continue to belabor this. It’s great. DC is releasing it in new omnibus editions, collecting the entire run and a few of the miniseries that James Robinson wrote which tied into the main story. The first volume is available now and the second is coming in early 2009. Or, if you prefer, track down the original issues; for the first few years James Robinson answered the letters pages personally, and encouraged people to discuss issues beyond the comics, particularly collecting. Some letters pages didn’t deal with comics at all, yet they were all interesting, and it gave a reader the sense of community that is lacking in many comics today. One more reason these comics were so unique.

2. Giffen and DeMatteis’ Justice League: Again, all I’ll do is encourage you to check out the new hardcover collections DC is printing of this series, starting at the first issue. The first two volumes are available now, and more are sure to come.

3. The Authority: These are also available in trade paperbacks. I highly recommend just the first 12 issues by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, which were at one time collected into one giant hardcover, although I don’t know if it’s still in print.

4. Invincible by Robert Kirkman: Possibly the best young hero comic being published today, and one of the best superhero comics being published overall. If you’ve never read it, dive in without reading about them on the internet, as there are surprises in store. Image collects these in trades regularly, and you can also snag an annual hardcover Ultimate collection, which contains a full 12 issues. Great stuff.

5. Squadron Supreme by Mark Gruenwald: Perhaps his greatest written work, and certainly a series that paved the way for a lot of future investigations into what people with the powers of demigods might do with those powers, like the Authority. This has been collected into a trade paperback (the first printing even had some of Gruenwald’s ashes mixed into the ink) and seems to still be in print. DC is a lot better about keeping their collected editions in print than Marvel is, so if you’re interested in anything Marvel published on our list, grab it in trade now rather than later.

6. “Under Siege” in The Avengers by Roger Stern and John Buscema: This is an example of something that was collected in a trade, but I believe that trade is now out of print. However, the back issues aren’t expensive (look for #270, 271, 273-277) and you should be able to track them down without much trouble.

7. Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Marvel has quite a few of these issues collected in trade, and you should have no trouble finding them either.

8. Mark Waid’s Flash: This one hasn’t been collected, except for a few trades which appear to be out of print (so much for DC being better at keeping things in print than Marvel, although honestly, in general, they are). Waid had a very long run on this book (including some beautiful issues pencilled by Mike Wieringo), which lasted on and off from #80 of the 2nd series through #129.

9. Ben Edlund’s The Tick: I believe that the trades for his issues are out of print, but a little quick internet searching showed some available second hand, and pretty cheap. Actual back issues can be hard to find and tend to be more expensive, so securing old trades may be your best bet. They’re worth the trouble.

10. Damage Control: Sadly, this has never been collected in trade paperback, one of life’s great injustices. I’d recommend searching for back issues though, which shouldn’t be expensive. The first 4-issue miniseries from 1989 is better than the later “Acts of Vengeance” tie-in mini or the final 1991 mini.

11. Thunderbolts: The first few issues have been collected in a trade, but most trades focus on the later issues. Those aren’t bad, but they don’t break ground the way the early issues did, where you never knew where the series was going from issue to issue.

12. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man: There are three trades available which collect his entire run on the series, well worth their price.

13. The Claremont/Byrne issues of Uncanny X-Men: Marvel has published these in their beautiful Masterworks line, although those may be out of print. Original issues may be pricey, but I’m sure there are trades collecting, at the very least, their Dark Phoenix Saga.

14. Madrox Limited Series by Peter David: We decided to include this, rather than X-Factor because it clearly shows the potential that Peter David found in the Madrox character, potential which seems to have eluded every other writer to handle the character for decades before this series was printed.

15. Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange: This could be the hardest thing on the list to snag. His issues were printed in Strange Tales and have only been collected, to the best of my knowledge, in the Marvel Masterworks line. Still, they are gorgeous and worth having.

16. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman work: DC has all of these issues collected in some beautiful trades.

17. Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels: Wait a minute! This wasn’t on the list before! Yes, it wasn’t, but Jason preferred this to Astro City and I was more than willing to concede. In many ways, the series are similar, with this also approaching the superhero through the eyes of ordinary humans. This was Alex Ross’ first mainstream work, and for those who think him overexposed now, I ask you to try and imagine what it was like when this series was first released. I remember seeing his art for the first time, and being completely blown away; if the Marvel superheroes existed in the real world, this must be what they would look like, I thought! It’s a great story too; it was collected in a trade, which looks like it may still be available certain places.

18. Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe/DC’s Who’s Who: I don’t believe DC has kept their handbook in print, but you can almost always find some version of Marvel’s available for purchase. The new hardcover editions have changed the format quite a bit, but they’re still the best way to educate yourself on newer and less-known characters. Marvel has also released the original series in their Essential format…but the black & white presentation steals a little of the glory from the pages.

19. Peter David and Todd Nauck’s Young Justice: Jason still doesn’t agree, but I’m adding it. Sadly, DC refuses to reprint most of this series, but the back issues are cheap. Find them. You won’t regret it.

20. Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier: John can’t see the simple sophistication of this tale, but I still hold it high as an example of celebrating comics’ past while adding a modern touch. If you can afford the Absolute Edition, definitely pick it up. The added sketches and commentary are enlightening.

There you have it! Those 20 things should keep you busy reading for some time, and when you’re through, you should either appreciate superhero comics in a new light. Stop back here and tell us how right we were or start flaming us for stupid picks. We welcome either response (but prefer the former).


John’s 20 Things Every Super-Hero Comic Collection Needs

Oct-14-08

You’ll find that my list, as opposed to Jason’s, tends to hit more specific issues than Jason’s did. It’s also, of course, informed by my personal preferences. There are plenty of important comics that I simply didn’t include because I’m trying to find the comics that people will enjoy reading, and will still show the comics medium at its best and show everything of which the medium is capable. Before I get started, I want to mention that there are four things on my list (and one thing on my list of “Honorable Mentions”) that are also on Jason’s list. To avoid repetition, I’m going to mention them now, but instead of including them below, I’m going to bump some of my “Honorable Mentions” up to my main list. It may be cheating, but there are so many cool things out there that I want the opportunity to list them all (and I still won’t have room)!

So, Jason and I agree on Starman, James Robinson’s series, a true wonder of comics. The best superhero series of the modern age, this series may be unique in that it ran for 80 issues, and was only ever written by Robinson. The plotting is dense and well planned; things in the first issues pay off in the final issues. The characters sound like real people, and they grow and change as the series progresses. This is what superhero comics should be, and honestly, you could read these issues, never read another comic again, and be happy.

We also agree on Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League run, which showed that you could be funny and still make good comics. This was particularly groundbreaking, coming out in the late 80s, when Grim ‘N Gritty was the order of the day. We also both feel that Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s Authority is worth checking out, for it’s ability to show superheroes as they might act in the real world, and for it’s groundbreaking “widescreen” storytelling. We believe that one of the first series to do that was Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme, which wasn’t as adult as Authority, but first threw out some of the ethical questions that superheroes must grapple with. Finally, we both direct your attention to Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, a fine example of the quality superheroes you can find if you wander outside of the Big Two.

What about my own picks? Read on….

1. Any comics from Alan Moore’s ABC line (except Promethea): I’m sure a lot of people think us crazy for listing so few Alan Moore comics on our lists. I’m a big fan of his work, and much of it can be recommended, but it’s been recommended elsewhere, and if you’re a fan of comics, you’re going to have read Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, Swamp Thing or any of his other titles. The ABC line is important because it gave Alan Moore the chance to do lighter, brighter (but no less interesting) fare. I would highly recommend Top 10, as it’s my favorite from this line, but Tomorrow Stories is also an excellent choice, as it highlights how differently Moore can write for different artists. Give one of comic’s greatest writers a chance to show you how well he can write any genre.

2. Any Sergio Aragones/Mark Evanier Collaboration: Jason mentioned their comic Groo in his last pick, and it is a great one. However, it’s not superheroes. On the plus side, these two have done superheroes, in specials where they Destroyed DC and Massacred Marvel. They also did an interesting series for DC called Fanboy, where the titular character became intimately involved with the comics he loved so much. They’re work together is funny, and more importantly smart, and even better, it often has a great message, which they communicate without beating you over the head.

3. Roger Stern’s “Under Siege” story in The Avengers: Being the huge Avengers (and Roger Stern) fan that he is, I was amazed that this didn’t make Jason’s list. These issues, which chronicle the Masters of Evil invading and occupying Avengers Mansion, are some great superhero comics. They may not be the modern inspiration that Starman is, but they clearly show that, in the world of superhero corporate comics, you can still do great stories. The follow up to these issues, in which the Avengers must go to fight the Gods of Olympus, are just as strong. I should mention that John Buscema’s art in all of these issues is superb and helps to make them the classics that they are.

4. Kurt Busiek’s and George Perez’s “Ultron Unleashed” story in The Avengers: Normally, I wouldn’t include two Avengers stories in a list like this. I also tried to find stories that showcased different aspects of the superhero genre. This story is, like “Under Siege”, just a really great superhero comic. However, it is so great, that I couldn’t choose between it and the one above. These issues pit an Avengers team consisting of the classics (Captain America, Iron Man and Thor) with Black Panther and the newcomer Firestar, as they battle an army of Ultrons to protect our world. The panel where the tired and battered heroes finally reach the main Ultron robot, hurt but not broken, is one of the most powerful superhero panels I’ve even seen.

5. Frank MIller’s Batman: Year One: I agree with Jason that Dark Knight Returns simply no longer holds up. However, I believe that Year One does, and it’s my pick for the best Frank Miller work ever. Somehow, in the space of four issues, Miller was able to distill Batman down into his very basics, giving us a fresh and believable tale of how one man could begin the campaign that would make him an icon. You could read this story and never read another Batman tale, and know everything important about the character.

6. Thunderbolts #1: Another Kurt Busiek story (this one pencilled by the always reliable Mark Bagley). If you read this comic in a vacuum, it’s inclusion on my list may make no sense. However, if you had read it when it was first published, the mystery may vanish. Today, it’s impossible, it seems, for comics to be published without fans knowing every detail of the issue; who will die, who will return from the dead, who will be unmasked. The Thunderbolts had been teased for a few months as a new team of heroes, and while some subtle hints had been dropped that there was more going on with them then was apparent, the reveal at the end of the first issue was amazing. It also led into an incredible run which took the superhero concept and turned it on its ear, examining villains trying to become heroes.

7. John Byrne’s She-Hulk: There are a lot of great comics that John Byrne has created, but like Alan Moore, if you’re a fan than you’ve already heard of his incredible work on Alpha Flight or Next Men or Fantastic Four. I  recommend his work on She-Hulk because it again showcases a well known creator doing something different. Byrne’s She-Hulk was again, a very amusing book, although Byrne went much farther over the line than any of the other amusing books on my list. She-Hulk regularly broke the Fourth Wall, chatting with her readers; villains took breaks between their scenes. It was glorious fun, and it is a shame Byrne’s time on the book was so truncated, as no subsequent writer could pull it off as effortlessly.

8. God Loves, Man Kills: If you want a superhero comic collection, there has to be an X-Men comic in it, right? Jason recommended the Claremont/Byrne issues, and they’re wonderful. However, this graphic novel is my favorite. Written by Chris Claremont, and drawn by Brent Anderson, it details the crusade of a religious zealot to stamp out mutants. Claremont is someone who I often criticize for his stylistic writing style, but they’re not in evidence here. Like Year One, you can read this comic, and know everything important about the X-Men.

9. Mark Waid’s Flash: Mark Waid wrote The Flash for years, sometimes alone and sometimes in partnership with Brian Augustyn. Their issues introduced Impulse, explained the Speed Force, and pitted Wally West against innumerable villains. However, that’s not why I chose these issues. I chose these issues because they are the best example of a superhero story that is, in reality, a love story. Sure, there were fights and plots and worlds to save during these issues, but the heart of these stories was the love between Wally West and Linda Park. Everything else was just background noise, easily overwhelmed by the love these two shared. While most heroes have love interests, I’ve rarely seen a romance as real as this one.

10. Ben Edlund’s The Tick: Jason mentioned this when he mentioned comics from other companies, but I singled this out and included it because it is demonstrably a superhero comic. It just happens to contain a man-eating cow and ninjas. It may seem like I keep coming back to funnier examples of superheroes, but this one is the most amusing I’ve ever read. Unlike the others, which mostly tried to ground their adventures in the reality of their comic book universes, the Tick isn’t grounded at all (he lives in a world where villains have chairs for heads). I recommend the original issues that Edlund wrote and drew himself; I laugh until I cry even after multiple re-readings.

11. The Batman Adventures: Comics heroes have visited different media since the radio shows based on Superman. Some of those visits have been good, others have been bad. When the animated Batman show appeared, it was so good, that it gave something back to the medium that birthed it’s hero: this series of comics, presenting some of the best Batman stories ever published. These stories, beautifully illustrated by Mike Parobeck, show how you can tell an excellent story by stripping out the extraneous (and unnecessary) and focus on the important. Some people found the series too plain, but those people missed the boat. They were elegant in their simplicity, and the well written and drawn stories were anything but child-like.

12. Walt Simonson’s Thor: It’s hard, I believe, to do mythology in comics and keep it interesting. It’s difficult to write powerful characters and make them relatable. It’s sometimes career suicide to try and infuse mythology into superhero comics. Yet Walt Simonson made it look so easy. I am still in awe, and these are some of the only Thor comics I have ever enjoyed.

13. Peter David and Todd Nauck’s Young Justice: I suppose anyone who’s read our blog for any length of time figured I’d be including this. Comics about teen heroes have been around for years and there have been some good ones, but for my money, none have been better than this one. First of all, Peter David stayed for the entire run, and Nauck only missed a few issues (often because he was pencilling Young Justice specials or larger issues of the title), so the entire series has a coherence that so many series lack. Furthermore, Peter David was able to keep the cast relatable, keep relationships changing in believable ways, and he was able to do both amusing and deathly serious issues deftly. For a series to change tone as often as this did and not seem schizophrenic is a commendable feat, and David handled it with finesse. And may I say, while some may see Nauck’s art as cartoony, that like Mike Parobeck, Nauck was able to tell a damn good story, stripping away the unnecessary clutter that infects other artist’s work. Nauck handled the serious issues as well as he did the funny ones.

14. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City: This will be my last Kurt Busiek comic, but I had to include it. Astro City uses superheroes as a backdrop to tell stories about people; some issues the heroes have the stage, but often, they’re simply extras, as the stories talk about the regular people surrounded by these gods among men. It’s one of the most human series I have ever read, and well worth your time. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Brent Anderson, who always does such a nice job making sure the stories look good.

15. Jack Cole’s Plastic Man: Jason mentioned comics from the Golden Age, and I said only one spoke to me. That one is Jack Cole’s creation, which has never been used as well since his death. Yes, I enjoy Plastic Man in the modern DC Universe (and recommend Kyle Baker’s series), but Cole’s Plastic Man was so ahead of its time that it deserves special recognition. Even though Cole produced these stories in the 40s and 50s, they resonate with the themes of the modern age. Yes, they’re funny, but the characters have actual personalities (rare in the Golden Age) the humor feels fresh (which is odd, considering how old they are) and the drawings seem to burst off the page.

16. Damage Control: Marvel’s series of limited series about a company that cleans up after superhero fights is such a common sense idea that I can’t believe it wasn’t done sooner. Much like some issues of Astro City, the heroes are often just the backdrop, as we explore the lives of normal humans, inhabiting a world filled with those with power. Yes, it’s funny, but there’s real characters and plots here to balance that. It’s a wonderful look at the absurdities of the superhero genre, while managing to remain a part of it.

17. Peter David’s X-Factor: I think it’s important to mention this series, particularly the first time Peter David tackled these characters alongside artist Larry Stroman, because it made one thing very clear: there are no stupid characters, or if they are stupid, you can still make them work. David took a group consisting of Havok and Polaris and a bunch of (what were then considered) stupid or unworkable characters and made them work. Madrox is, without a doubt, his strongest achievement, and the self-titled limited series that David wrote for him is also worth recommending. If someone had told me in the mid-90s that I would now consider Madrox one of the most interesting characters in superherodom, I would have considered them crazy. David also made Quicksilver interesting, a character that had always been searching for a writer who could keep his obnoxious personality intact, while making him likable. Hey, he almost even made me like Wolfsbane, but I’m not sure anyone could do that.

18. Early issues of JSA Volume 1: Geoff Johns sometimes get knocked around by critics for his love of obscure DC characters and his tendency to cannibalize DC characters and continuity for his own use. However, his early JSA issues, beautifully illustrated by Steven Sadowski, achieve something that other books should try to emulate; he successfully sells the idea of superhero legacies (where names and/or powers are passed down through generations) and reimagines some Golden Age concepts (like Mr. Terrific) for the modern age. Most of the first series was great, and the current series would be better if it wasn’t stuck with some of the plotlines running through the DC Universe, but the earliest issues are certainly worth a look.

19. Amazing Spider-Man #400: It’s struck me that Jason and I have listed precious few comics of the big names in the industry, like Spider-Man or Superman. This comic is one that is often overlooked, as it came out during the Clone Saga, and it featured the death of a character that has since come back to life. However, if you read it as it was originally written, it’s an incredibly moving story of the death of Aunt May. You finally see the chemistry and bond between her and her nephew, and her death will make you cry. It’s a shame they brought her back, as she will never get as good a send-off as the one J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Bagley gave her here.

20. Archie Meets the Punisher: If I have to explain it to you, you’ll never understand.

Cheater. Next time I’m going first so that I can look more original with my picks. Jerk.

Yes, yes, we had a few similarities and, once you read my following comments, you’ll see we had even more in common before I pruned my list. I’m stunned that the Vision and Scarlet Witch maxiseries was not on your list. That being said, I find it interesting that you also excluded all of the so-called “must haves” from your list. I think it’s an example of the media bandwagoning on comics and not really knowing what’s of interest to the true fan.

And now, since you tore my list apart and then managed to somehow call out my fandom like a common street houligan, I’m going to return the favor…

1. Any comics from Alan Moore’s ABC line (except Promethea): I have no opinion on these, because I’ve never read them. To be quite honest, aside from Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and an excellent Superman story), I just don’t get Alan Moore. His superhero writing doesn’t stand out to me. Sure, it may be more nuanced and intellectual, but there’s also less punching of faces which leads to a certain amount of boredom.

2. Any Sergio Aragones/Mark Evanier Collaboration: I forgot all about Fanboy, not that I think it’s essential by any stretch of the imagination. If we did a list of the Top Humor Comics, I could see Aragones and Evanier taking a spot or two. This one seems out of place on an essential superhero list.

3. Roger Stern’s “Under Siege” story in The Avengers: Yes, this one was obviously on my short list. I think that’s why I made the comment about needing to do a Top Storylines post. In retrospect, I probably should have added this. It’s my favorite Avengers arc and probably one of my favorite comic stories of all time. The Masters of Evil finally lived up to their dubious moniker.

4. Kurt Busiek’s and George Perez’s “Ultron Unleashed” story in The Avengers: Two Avengers stories? Hmm…you didn’t even mention that I didn’t have a single Hawkeye story on my list. Actually, I was going to include the first West Coast Avengers miniseries on my list.

5. Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One: I don’t really have a good reason for not including this one, except for the fact that most of the story has been portrayed on film and portions of the origin have been revamped and redacted so many times as to make my head spin. Miller weaves a solid yarn, but I prefer the grittiness of his Daredevil work.

6. Thunderbolts #1: Yes. Almost made my list too. The utter jaw-droppingness of the ending make this one of the best single issues ever printed. And I agree that it may have been the last gasp of “wait for it” timing in modern comics. I often complain about how the internet has taken the fun out of comics.

7. John Byrne’s She-Hulk: Never read it, as I can’t see myself spending money on a solo She-Hulk book. Although, i have heard great things about the humor and how Byrne broke the Fourth Wall (similar to Morrison’s Animal Man). I’m surprised Dan Slott’s She-Hulk didn’t make your list.

8. God Loves, Man Kills: Meh. This strikes me as another of those “classic” stories that just doesn’t hold up well with the passage of time.

9. Mark Waid’s Flash: This is another one that I was seriously considering. Mark Waid made Wally West a person first and a superhero second…which is something DC has had trouble doing for most of its history.

10. Ben Edlund’s The Tick: Agreed on all counts. I’m also glad you singled out the fact that the issues NOT written by Edlund just don’t match up. Was that a double negative?

11. The Batman Adventures: I briefly thought about this title, but then I realized that I have the DVD box sets on my shelf and I’d much rather watch the cartoon.

12. Walt Simonson’s Thor: When I sold off the majority of my Thor collection, these are the only issues that I kept. However, I think that just may be the nostalgic side of me. I honestly haven’t retained any info from this run. Is this the one with the frog?

13. Peter David and Todd Nauck’s Young Justice: As little as I care for the majority of DC’s pantheon, I care even less about its junior members. Whatever.

14. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City: Busiek is a great writer, I just prefer superhero books that are actually about superheroes, especially when the superheroes who do show up are just derivatives from the Big Two. I’d be more interested in throwing Marvels onto one of our lists. Even though I think it missed some marks, the fact that it tried to show the human side of an already highly established universe made more sense to me.

15. Jack Cole’s Plastic Man: Plastic Man has always been a peripheral character to me. Right after I posted my list, I thought about going back and throwing in Beck’s Captain Marvel work, but I don’t know enough about that or Plastic Man to make a sensible argument.

16. Damage Control: Definitely a consideration for me. LOVED the first series. The subsequent ones didn’t have the same “Ooh” factor for me. Taking a peek behind the scenes in a superhero-filled world, and its repercussions, was definitely a unique vision at the time.

17. Peter David’s X-Factor: I wanted to include an X-Factor run, but I just didn’t think they were iconic enough for a “best of” superhero collection list. There are so many X-titles and offshoots out there that I just basically ignored the mutant sub-genre completely. However, these were good stuff. And that Madrox miniseries is one of the highlights of the last few years.

18. Early issues of JSA Volume 1: Again, not sure. I appreciate Johns’s enthusiasm for obscure characters and legacy heroes, but a lot of the stuff he worked with was still mired down with DC’s baffling continuity. You really had to know your stuff to follow along with some of it.

19. Amazing Spider-Man #400: Seriously? Hell, I’d rather reread the What If? issue with Aunt May as a herald of Galactus. If you wanted to pick a good Spider-Man story, why not the final Kraven one?

20. Archie Meets the Punisher: Really? You couldn’t find a 20th entry with more relevance than this? I think you can definitely see some of our personalities in these picks. You seem to have gone for the intentionally humorous while I’ve tended towards the accidentally funny books. I love irony.


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.