The Avengers: Reassembling Greatness.

Jan-12-09

If you’ve ever read even one post from this blog, you know that John and I are both GIGANTIC fans of The Avengers in pretty much any shape or form. Oddly enough, in all of our weeks and months pondering over how to revamp this person and how to better position that team, aside from a hypothetical “Dream Team” lineup we’ve never delved into the thick and twisted history of our favorite superhero team.

Until now!

With one week left before the debut of Dark Avengers, we thought this would be the ideal time to spend an entire week thinking, planning and pontificating on Marvel’s premiere superhero squad. No matter what shape they take…be it “New”…”Mighty”…”Ultimate”…”Secret”…”Initiative”…or now “Dark” (which is really just a rehashed Thunderbolts lineup in sheep’s clothing), The Avengers still stand for one thing: teamwork. Of course, we plan to strip away what we perceive as silliness and superfluity. I’m sure, somewhere along the way, there will be some pooh-poohing of Bendis and his mangling of the Avengers legacy. John will say nice things about Kurt Busiek. And we will both sing the praises of Roger Stern.

However, first thing’s first: The lineup (or lineups, as it were). I’ve always been a fan of the continental part of the Avengers lineage. That is to say, I would prefer to see the teams focused on both the East and West coasts. I’m not quite sure where John and I stand on the enforcement of the Superhero Registration Act. Have we sort of let it fall to the wayside in our interpretation of the Marvel U? Or do these Avengers teams we concoct have to abide by stricter guidelines since they fall under government auspices? Or do we jettison the “sanctioned” concept altogether?

We also need to be cognizant of the storylines we’ve already enacted throughout our version of Marvel’s playground. Are Ant-Man and Stature out of contention for membership since we sent them off to Kansas? Is Iron Man off the grid? Do we keep Scarlet Witch under the tutelage of Doctor Strange? We haven’t really fooled around with many of the current core Avengers members in our work…Captain America, Wasp (is she still dead in our world?), Thor, Wonder Man, Ms. Marvel, Ares, Luke Cage and Iron Fist are all available. We sent Hawkeye to California with Hank Pym and Black Widow, but that could be the nucleus of a western outpost. Should Daredevil, Echo, Spider-Man or Wolverine be considered at all? Are there characters we need to bring back from the dead (or from the ranks of the missing/replaced/incarcerated)?

Where do we start with the Meanwhile…Avengers?

So many questions. Let me start by saying that the Avengers is my favorite super-hero comic ever. I have read every issue from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s number one through the issues that took place during Civil War. Sadly, I simply can not enjoy Bendis’ run on the series, and before anyone flames me for that, let me say that I never liked his work on the series, and I still stuck with it for a few years, so I think I gave him a fair shake. My point behind all of this is that I think I have a very firm grounding on what makes the team work and what’s happening on the team when they’re at their best, at least from my point of view.

As far as what is and what isn’t game in our discussion, I am of the opinion that we shouldn’t be beholden to the continuity that we have created in past entries. While it’s interesting to play with the idea that we’re creating our own Marvel Universe I think that forcing ourselves into following previous entries is a negative in two ways: it becomes a barrier to those who haven’t read the blog before (“Wait, they can’t use Stature for what reason?”) and it may cause us to use (or not use) characters which are ideal, simply because they’re somewhere else. Besides, we’ve already violated our own continuity, as we declared Brother Voodoo a supporting character in our Dr. Strange book, and then used him as a member of the Nightstalkers. So, I don’t think our past posts should be used to hinder what we do in the current post.

However, to this point, we have continued using the current Marvel continuity as a guide. That means that the Wasp is indeed dead. Can we use her? Sure, if we want to; we just need to resurrect her, which everyone knows will happen eventually, especially since her death was so incredibly lame. Heck, all of the important characters that Bendis killed in Avengers: Disassembled have returned by now in some form or another, and while we could spend an entire post debating whether the revolving door of death has been a boon or a bane to comics, the fact is that it exists, and we should feel free to use it in this post.

Should the Avengers be sanctioned? Yes, I believe they should. I think the Avengers work best as the “Official” superheroes of the Marvel Universe. Whether working for the United States Government or the United Nations, they are those heroes who the governments of the world seek out when they need help. Being sanctioned has always been good for some great plots as well, as the Avengers are forced to comply with government regulation and policy. Plus, some of the most interesting supporting characters have been the federal liaisons with the Avengers: Henry Peter Gyrich, Raymond Sikorski and Duane Freeman (well, maybe not Sikorski, as he never did too much, but the others were valuable members of the supporting cast).

So, in summary: yes, they should be sanctioned; no, I don’t care about what was written before (you may use it as a guide if you like, but expect that I may ignore it if I feel it’s getting in the way of a good idea); and yes, we should try and follow current Marvel continuity. However, after all my long-windedness, it turns out that current Marvel continuity doesn’t work too well for us right now. As long as Norman Osborn is in charge of things, we’re not going to be able to do what we want with the Avengers, and they sure as heck can’t be sanctioned. So, perhaps it would be okay to look at the end of the Dark Reign storyline, and set our Avengers teams in the aftermath of this particular plot. I don’t think anyone assumes that Dark Reign won’t end with the heroes back in charge and the villains back to operating out of the shadows, so let’s just move there now, as we discuss the Avengers.

Those are the ground rules for this in my mind. Let me know if you disagree, and then, let’s discuss what we want to do. I see Dark Reign as just ending, and the federal government realizes that they made a huge mistake in giving Osborn as much power as they did. They recognize the need for a real team of heroes to restore the public’s trust, so they want to rebuild the Avengers. How do they do that and who would they choose? I think one of the most interesting things about any new Avengers is the absence of Steve Rogers, always a cornerstone of the team. How does a new team form without his involvement? What do you think of this as a starting point?

I can fall in line on most of these points. Current Marvel continuity is our guide. The process we go through to revamp things just makes us use our brains a bit more to resolve continuity conflicts (something I wish more writers and editors would think through). I also agree that the Avengers have worked best as a government controlled team. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most of my Avengers reading has taken place while they’ve enjoyed that status. I can’t really recall the non-government team very well. I also agree that we need to work around the “Big Event” scenarios and just present what we think should happen after all the hoopla dies down. Aside from the whole “bad guys in charge” thing, I’m assuming that the SHRA will eventually be revoked as well, but we can work with it for now.

However, I’m hesitant to ignore the pseudo-continuity that we’ve created in our own Meanwhile Universe. You mentioned our double-dealing of Brother Voodoo, but I really see no conflict there. We made him a member of a team of supernatural investigators. That doesn’t mean he can’t also guest star in the occasional Dr. Strange book. It really just means that he’s precluded from taking off on any extensive adventures with anyone else (without explanation) or joining any other teams. I had assumed that everything we were doing here was linked somehow. Otherwise, every revamp we offer could ultimately be the same…and that would get rather boring and redundant. “I know how we can fix Captain America! Make Spider-Man his partner!” quickly becomes “I know how we can make the X-Men better! Make Spider-Man their leader!” and then we have another annoying Wolverine situation where he’s everything and everywhere. Too easy to just cop-out and offer the safe answer.

No, I would prefer to use the tools we’ve made available to ourselves. If we need to change or explain away some of our own created continuity, that’s fine. And, I believe, it’s an important thing to do. We made a choice to send Stature and Ant-Man to Kansas…now, if we want them back, we need solid reasoning to make it happen. Like I said earlier, most of the major players in team history have been left untouched by us. I think we can assemble something valid and interesting from those characters and a few unique twists.

Is that cool?

I like the point of view on how to start the team. The question is, who’s the one to make the first step? Let’s assume that the teams have been disbanded or have fractured under their own weighty morals and duties. The Osborn-built teams have been sent packing and the ones he merely oversaw are having serious doubts about their mission and their purpose. So, we have a relatively clean slate to work from. Relationships, with each other, with the government and with the people, need to be rebuilt and reestablished. Who raises their hand first?

You and I are going to have to write a post where we can argue about continuity one of these days. Still, I’m willing to table that argument for now and acquiesce to your concerns.

The first step you mention raises an interesting question: would the genesis of the new Avengers come from the government itself, anxious to reestablish a superhero team that can engender the public trust again, or would it come from a hero who felt that the Avengers were a necessary team and needed to be recreated? I believe there would be parties on both sides who recognized the need for the Avengers, but whomever steps up first is going to be the heart of the story, at least in the beginning, and therefore assumes more importance.

While I like the Avengers as being sanctioned by the government, I don’t think the impetus for the team’s formation should ever lie within those official channels. The Avengers should always be brought together because the spark within them, as heroes, cries out that this assemblage is necessary. If the government goes around and recruits the team, then you have Freedom Force or various incarnations of X-Factor, or some other, equally mercenary, group. That’s not the Avengers.

If the genesis of the new team’s formation comes from within the ranks of the heroes, though, who would raise the call to assemble? Captain America would have been the obvious choice, but as we’ve noted, he’s a little dead right now. The Wasp is also dead, which takes two heroes out of the running. Pym has just returned from years as a hostage to the Skrulls, so he may not want to restart the team; or, he may feel like the Avengers are what he knows best, and he may seek them out as a way to reconnect to the past he remembers. Iron Man is in disgrace right now, but he could see the team as a way to return some measure of trust in him to the world; conversely, he could see himself as a liability to the team, with his name and presence bringing instant distrust in the eyes of the public. Thor is something of a wild card, and I admit to not reading his current series, which I’ve heard is excellent. Would he want to be involved in mortal affairs as he tries to rebuild Asgard, or would he prefer to focus on the world of gods before returning full time to the world of men?

You know, with the founding members all in varying states of disorganization and shock, I think perhaps that our team should be suggested by someone outside of this august circle. A former Avenger, to be sure, but one that wasn’t there at the beginning. One who feels that the Avengers are important and believes in the team with all of their being. Any suggestions on who that might be?

Depending on how things fall out of Dark Reign and the SHRA, there will be some hesitancy on the part of the government and the heroes themselves to continue along any given path. Both will be trying to regain credibility in the face of the general public. And I think both will lean on the other to ensure any move forward is done correctly and cautiously. The government would offer to let the Avengers function as their own autonomous team, not bridled under the control of any given agency or overseer. This would take them back to the days of having a liaison…someone who ensures that they do things by the book but isn’t there to dictate missions and decisions to them.

I can only assume that Iron Man’s position of influence will be restored in the wake of everything Norman Osborn is attempting to do to him now. His reputation will be tarnished, but the people are fairly forgiving under the right evidence and circumstances. However, I don’t see him as the catalyst for getting the team back together. He would be very reluctant and would need someone else to set things in motion.

For that position, two names come to mind, both of whom served on the team at one point or another and have always been seen as go-to folks when the Avengers needed a little extra assistance: She-Hulk or Falcon. She-Hulk’s relationship with Tony Stark became more and more strained as events played out in the Marvel Universe, but she’s also a strong personality who is universally trusted by her peers. Falcon was Cap’s right-hand man for a long time. He’s seen as a steadfast supporter of all the ideals the Avengers stood for. Plus, he has the government contacts through his dealings with both Gyrich and SHIELD. I think either, or both, of these heroes would be able to bring the government and Tony Stark to the table to at least craft the beginnings of a relaunched Avengers team.

With his resources, experience and history, Iron Man is clearly the one hero who could stand as a figurehead for the group. I’m not saying he’s a slam dunk for membership, but he would at least play a very significant role in bringing the Avengers back.

Interesting choice for your two heroes who might be the impetus for the start of the new team of Avengers. Of the two, I would choose the Falcon. Here’s how I see it going down.

Dark Reign is over, as you mentioned, and everyone is picking up the pieces. The Falcon recognizes the need for a group of Avengers, a group that can be in the forefront of restoring the public’s confidence in their heroes (since heroes got a bad rap during Civil War, when they fought each other, and then in Secret Invasion, when some of them turned out to be alien invaders) as well as a group that can work with the government, since the government has also had a rocky road with heroes lately. The Falcon would also see the return of the Avengers to be important as a way of remembering the legacy of his friend Steve Rogers. Rogers, as Captain America, was a long time leader and public face of the Avengers, and the Falcon knows how upset Steve would be if he knew that there was no Avengers team out in the world.

However, the Falcon is realistic. He’s a member of the Avengers, but he’s never served with them for any length of time, and he’s not considered one of their premiere members. When someone thinks of the Avengers, the Falcon is one of the last heroes they consider, and when they think of the Falcon, most people don’t even think of his time with the team. No, if the Falcon is going to sell the idea of a new Avengers team, both to the government and to potential members, there’s going to have to be a bigger name than him. That name is Tony Stark.

After all, the Falcon had been working with Stark quite a bit when Stark was the head of SHIELD, and the two had bonded after the loss of their friend, Steve Rogers. Sam approaches Stark, and he explains why he thinks the Avengers need to exist and why he thinks Stark needs to be a part of it. Stark agrees, and the two of them go visit their government contacts, who direct them to the office of Valerie Cooper, the Deputy Director of ONE, which is charged with the preparation and defense of America from superhuman threats. She listens to their proposal, and agrees that perhaps authorizing the Avengers to act for the government, as has been done in the past, is a good idea. However, she’d want to see a team roster.

So, who would be on said roster?

Right. Good setup. Pretty much what I was thinking too. Here comes the tricky part…

Are Iron Man and Falcon automatically charged with being de facto members of the group? Is Falcon registered? Would all of the members need to be officially registered or would clemency be offered? And what about characters that the US government clearly has no jurisdiction over…like Thor or Ares? There’s a whole slew of decisions that need to be made before we can really start to form any sort of cohesive team. Although, I will admit that the task of tracking down characters and inviting them to a “whole new Avengers” would be a fun thing to show in the comics.

I would assume, at least until the whole SHRA thing is nailed down and revoked or whatever they do to it, that we will only be dealing with registered heroes. That gives us a more limited list than I would like, but I think it’s still workable. My first choices would be the three people I’ve already mentioned: Iron Man, Falcon and She-Hulk. I think Tony would need the other two around to act as his conscience and his support. Not a bad nucleus to build a team around either!

I would like to bring Ant-Man and Stature into the fold. Both are currently registered and working through the Initiative. The new Ant-Man has one heck of a personality, but has a certain legacy to uphold. Cassie, of course, has her own unique legacy and I think she would work well under She-Hulk’s tutelage. It would also be interesting (and Dan Slott is doing it too) to add Vision to the team, considering he recently professed his love for Cassie.

Beyond that, I’m not sure. Wonder Man and Black Widow both quit the team after Secret Invasion (plus we have Black Widow off with Hawkeye…of course, that was before Mockingbird came back into the picture). Sentry never did anything for me. Spider-Woman is pretty useless and, regardless of who she really is, will serve as a reminder to the population of the whole “invaded by aliens” thing for a long time to come. Ms. Marvel has jumped over to the unregistered team, though that could be rectified too.

That leaves us with folks like Stingray, Starfox, Hellcat, Nighthawk, Gargoyle, Flaming Skull, members of the Great Lakes team, and any number of Initiative trainees.

So, to recap, I’m proposing an initial lineup of: Iron Man, Falcon, She-Hulk, Ant-Man, Stature and Vision. Feel free to add one or two of your own…or, of course, offer up a completely different list that we can fight over. Fisticuffs!

Let me start by saying that I don’t think that we need to stick only with the registered heroes, and I don’t think you should limit your choices as such. I would be willing to bet your paycheck that the Registration Act will be undone at the end of Dark Reign. When you consider that the ranks of the registered heroes have dwindled as more and more of them go over to the unregistered side, I think the writing is clearly on the wall. Besides, if the Registration Act still existed, our entire premise for the book would be shot. After all, if the government, under the SHRA, wanted to have a new team of Avengers, they’d simply draft whomever they wanted from the ranks of registered heroes. Plus, if we’re dealing with the aftermath of the SHRA, it sets up the idea that the people need heroes to believe in again and the heroes are slightly damaged after all of the pain that the SHRA caused. So, I think the SHRA should not be a consideration when we’re setting up the team.

Moving on to members of the team: Personally, I wouldn’t add Falcon to the team. I love Sam Wilson, but he’s never really been a member of the regular team for long, and I honestly think that he works best when he just comes in and pinch hits for specific missions. Besides that, I don’t think that Falcon would want to be a regular member. For someone who doesn’t have his own book, Falcon is a very busy hero, and Ed Brubaker has been using him to great effect in the Captain America book. I think that Sam would be available to help if needed, and would show up in the book to, indeed, act as part of the conscience for the team, but he wouldn’t be on the roster.

If Sam and Stark (yes, I know, I should be going with all first names or all last names, but calling the Falcon ‘Wilson’ sounds wrong, and Stark sounds better than ‘Tony’ for Iron Man) are looking to build a team that will engender the trust of both the government and the citizenry, I think they’re going to look at those people whom the public identifies as Avengers. So, I can certainly see them choosing Vision and She-Hulk. I believe that they would approach She-Hulk first, with Stark asking her to be on the team to serve as his conscience, since the two of them had such a public falling out after Civil War. I also think that bringing in Stature and Ant-Man is a good idea, as they’re brilliant characters, and they also callback to two of the founding members, Ant-Man and the Wasp.

In fact, if you look at the line-up of Iron Man, She-Hulk, Stature, Ant-Man and the Vision, you begin to see that these may be the Avengers of the new century. Yes, Iron Man and She-Hulk are the same as they have always been, but Vision has been rebuilt, and again, Stature and Ant-Man are the 21st century analogues to two of the founders of the team. With those in place, and with Falcon acting as an advisor, I think that he and Stark would also approach another new legacy hero of the 21st century: the new Captain America.

I think the new Captain America is a very interesting character, and I believe putting him on this team, a team that meant so much to his mentor, is going to be very interesting ground to explore. How does he deal with these people, some of whom were very close to his predecessor? How do they deal with him, since his methods are very different from the Captain America that they adventured with for all of those years? Plus, this gives us an Avengers team with all of the icons on it, or at least modern day counterparts to those icons, with the exception of Thor, who I’m willing to lose.

That would give us a team of Captain America, Iron Man, She-Hulk, Vision, Stature and Ant-Man. Six heroes, and we could add one or two more. One of the questions we haven’t answered is who would lead this team. I don’t think it would be the new Captain America, and even if it were offered to him, I don’t think he’d take it. He’s well aware of how inexperienced he is at being a hero, and he has almost no current knowledge of working within a team. I also don’t think Stark would want it. He’s been beaten around in the press quite a bit lately, and I think he would see himself as a liability in the top spot. Actually, I see him offering the job to She-Hulk when he asks her to join the team; it would be a way that he would show her that he’s not the manipulative taskmaster he was portrayed as during Civil War and its aftermath. She-Hulk has always been a smart woman, and in her solo series, she was shown to be a little more serious and competent. I think she’d do well in the job; it would be another good opportunity to explore parts of a character that haven’t been explored before.

Are you ok with that line-up? Shall we add a seventh hero?

I was going to suggest She-Hulk be the leader as well. Not only is she more than competent and experienced (both as a hero and a lawyer), but it would be a positive gesture on Tony’s part…acknowledging that She-Hulk was right and deserves credit for that.

Looking at the lineup as it is, we have an experienced yet still fresh character (She-Hulk) assuming a new role and we have the most experienced, most historic member (Iron Man) sort of taking a back seat to the decision-making process. On top of that, we have four members who are, more or less, new to the whole hero-ing scene. For that reason alone, I think we need to throw another old schooler onto the squad to offer support and guidance in the field and off. I was thinking of someone like Wonder Man. I know John isn’t a fan of the character, what with all the ridiculous plotlines and rebirths and baggage he’s carried for decades now, but he has proven to be a valuable asset and a dedicated team member in the past.

I also think readers expect a wild card with every new Avengers lineup and I hate to cause disappointment. I remember when certain characters had been brought in before, they were used as the eyes of the common person peering inside this life of a mega-superhero team. We already have those wide-eyed types in the younger, less experienced members. However, as a nod to the recently expired SHRA and the notion of rehabilitating villains into helpful citizens, I thought it may be an interesting gesture to offer a position on the Avengers to a former villain gone good. Not only would it show integration with previous storylines, but it would also add a new dynamic to the team atmosphere…can they trust this person? For that role, I would turn to a well-established character such as Boomerang (who was a member of the Masters of Evil, but also helped Iron Man on at least one occasion), Blizzard (who has also helped Iron Man and has a love-hate relationship with She-Hulk), or more interestingly Songbird (the former Screaming Mimi and former leader of the Thunderbolts).

I think any of the above would be good additions to the team, but I await John’s input before we firm up the lineup. Then we can move on to Part Two and decide how this whole thing happens and what comes next.

Await no longer! I shall input and firm up lines!

You’re correct that a more seasoned hero might be a good idea. You’re also correct in that I find Wonder Man about as interesting as a “Full House” rerun. Ugh. I’ve even read the Peter David penned mini-series featuring him, and it also left me cold. Heck, Peter David convinced me that Madrox was one of the neatest characters at Marvel, and he couldn’t get me to like Wonder Man. What does that say about this character?

It’s interesting, because if you look at Wonder Man from a distance, he has a lot of attributes that should make him interesting. He’s been dead and alive quite a few times, but unlike all the other characters at Marvel who can make that claim, he’s also been in-between those states a few times; once as a zombie, and once as an energy being tied to the Scarlet Witch. The love of his life married his “brother”, the Vision, then dated him, and then went insane. His twin nephews were revealed to be figments of someone’s imagination. His “brother” Vision was dismantled and returned to life without his mental patterns. His real brother has tried to kill him on many occasions. He’s an actor and is conversant in the ways of Hollywood. He’s made of energy. And, he generally has horrible fashion sense. There should be an interesting character here, but if so, I’ve never seen it. He continues to disappoint, and I have zero interest in him.

There are other choices out there besides him. Wolverine, for example, has a lot of experience as a hero, and this would be a great book to showcase him, since he isn’t seen much in the Marvel Universe….

I kid. But seriously folks, there are a ton of other heroes that we could use instead of Wonder Man. For example, there’s….well, actually that won’t work, since we want someone widely known as an Avenger and they aren’t. How about….well, actually, that doesn’t work either, since they’re more of a leader, and I don’t want them stepping on She-Hulk’s toes. Hmm. This is actually a bit of a problem. We want an established hero that is considered a quintessential Avenger, and someone who’s not a natural leader. There’s not a lot of heroes who fit that bill. Plus, Wonder Man would be a perfect public face for the team, and could do their PR, which is going to be important if they’re working to regain the public trust. Fine, he’s in, but you better be able to make him interesting.

As for our “reformed criminal”, I am so down with Songbird being made a member. For those who read “Avengers Forever”, it was stated in that book that she would eventually join their ranks, and there’s no time like the present. She’s proven herself time and again in the Thunderbolts title to be a true hero, yet she still struggles somewhat against her dark past. I think she’d be perfect.

So, She-Hulk leads Iron Man, Stature, Ant Man, the Vision, Songbird, Wonder Man and Captain America, with the Falcon stopping by to advise, hang out, and go on the occasional mission, when necessary. Now that we know who they are, we need to know what they’re doing. That will be another post.

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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?


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.


Dream Team: The Avengers

Sep-30-08

As we continue to come up with new things to discuss here at good old Meanwhile…Comics, we thought it might be interesting to take some of the iconic teams in the super-hero universe and create a dream roster for them. Now, not all teams work like this: for example, the Fantastic Four is always at its best when it’s Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny. Yes, there have been other members, and I’m someone who greatly enjoyed She-Hulk’s tenure with the team. That being said, other members are always temporary. The Fantastic Four is a family, and if you’re not using those four characters, in the end, you’re not writing the Fantastic Four. However, a team like the Avengers is perfect for creating a dream roster. One of the reasons the Avengers work so well for this is because there are so many of them. I’d estimate that about 80% of the non-mutants in the Marvel Universe are members of the Avengers; heck, 3/4 of the Fantastic Four have joined the Avengers at one time or another! Their membership is huge, and even if one discounts the dead, inactive, depowered and deflowered (whoops! How’d that sneak in there?) members, there’s still quite a large pool of superheroes from which to choose.

Now, in choosing a dream roster for any team, there are a few pitfalls one must avoid. First, many people tend to believe that the original roster for any team is their best roster, and I have no doubt that many people would choose a team of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Henry Pym and the Wasp. While I like all of these characters, I don’t believe that they all need to be present in a dream roster. Another trap to avoid relates to the saying that the Golden Age for any comics fan is when they were twelve; in other words, the team you grew up reading is bound to be your favorite. For a Roger Stern fan like myself, it would be really simple for me to choose those characters he used during his run on the book and create a roster from them. However, I don’t think that’s quite fair, and I’m going to do my best to create a more diverse roster than simply “the Roger Stern Avengers” (although, truly, those Avengers did rock, and if you haven’t read the first series Avengers from about issue #230 to #290, you’re missing a treat). Finally, we should consider how many members the roster should have. It would be simple to create a roster of two dozen characters (especially when you have so many members, like the Avengers do) and be done with it. However, that’s simply too many characters for one book; there would be no room to develop them or for the reader to get to know them. Some years ago, when Captain America was chairman, he designated a membership of six. I agree that six or seven Avengers is a good number, and I’ll be shooting for that.

One more note before I start: I love the Avengers. They are my favorite super-hero team in comicdom, and I truly believe that you can do a lot of interesting things with any six of them that you’d throw together. Honestly, were I asked to write the Avengers, I’d be tempted to choose all but one of the heroes at random, and then I’d have the fun of making the randomly chosen heroes gel into a cohesive team. That being said, while I can argue for and against any member on the roster, I recognize that you can do interesting things with a different group than I’ve chosen, and hopefully we can generate some good debate on our choices. So, who would I choose?

Captain America: There’s simply no debate on this issue. While I believe that Iron Man and Thor, while great characters and wonderful in the Avengers, aren’t necessary for the book to feel like the Avengers, Captain America is. Without him, the Avengers just don’t feel right. I also insist that he be chairman. I’ve enjoyed a lot of other chairmen over the years, and I actually grew up when the Wasp was in charge (and quite liked her in that role). However, Cap is simply too inspirational in the role for me to be comfortable with anyone else in command. I consider this slot to be the only non-debatable choice on my roster.

Vision and the Scarlet Witch: I know these two aren’t a couple anymore. I know the Scarlet Witch is no longer an active hero. I really don’t care. Restoring Wanda to her former role in the Marvel Universe would be simplicity itself. As for them not being a couple anymore, I’m fine with that. I list the characters together, since they’ll always be a couple in my mind, but I’m at peace with them being separate people now, moving on with their lives. Bringing in the younger Vision from Young Avengers will provide even more reason for the two of them to stay apart. Still, they are Avengers from way back, and their powers are fascinating; I like the flexibility of them both. I think they provide color and interest to the team, as well as experience and well developed personalities (well, Wanda does; the Vision gives us the opportunity (yet again) to rebuild his personality in a different way).

The Black Knight: I like Dane Whitman, and think that he’s never served so well as when he is with the Avengers. While he isn’t a powerhouse, he does give the team a foothold in the realms of magic, which is a nice way to involve them in plots that are a little different than their more mainstream foes. He’s also a scientist, and that tends to get overlooked. He’s the only scientist I plan on including on this team, in the hope that this will give his scientific skills a chance to shine.

Living Lightning: Every team needs a newer hero that is just learning the ropes (ok, ok, they don’t, but it sounds profound, and if you don’t think about it too hard, it makes perfect sense). I enjoyed the Living Lightning during his stint with the West Coast Avengers. His powers are unique (and have a great visual) and he’s Hispanic, which helps to create at least a little diversity (although a synthezoid and a gypsy may be diverse, they don’t have much resonance with real world readers). If Dan Slott’s comics are to be considered in continuity (and I believe they are) he’s also gay, which could be a lot of fun to explore, if Marvel doesn’t hamstring the writer and force the writer to make him a eunuch.

Mrs. Peel: The group needs another woman, and she always seemed very skilled at….I’m sorry? What? Wrong Avengers? Heh, heh, whoops. Sorry about that. Moving on!

Ms. Marvel: The group needs another woman, and she also provides the “strong person” role in the group. I was a fan of Ms. Marvel when I first read her appearances in the Avengers that were printed back in the late 70s and early 80s, and while I wasn’t thrilled with the alcoholic plotline they used when she was re-introduced to the team as Warbird in the late 90s, now that she has reclaimed the Ms. Marvel name, I think she’s become much more interesting. She’s got the same military background as Captain America, without having as many ideals. She’s a good person, but she’s been forced to confront the world for what it is, and I find that very interesting.

So, there’s my team. Captain America leads it, and it includes Vision, Scarlet Witch, the Black Knight, Living Lightning and Ms. Marvel. I’m willing to bet it’s not your team. Feel free to tear this one apart, and then let’s see what you have. I’ll lay money yours includes Hawkeye.

Gee, that’s a real sucker bet, isn’t it?

Before I get into the meat of this, we have to throw up a disclaimer. We’ve been working for 5 months now to create our own version of the Marvel Universe and its continuity. I think this exercise sets aside all of the plotlines and positioning we’ve put out there. It’s just a simple way of gathering all of our favorite characters into our favorite team.

Like you, I’ve always been a huge fan of the Avengers. Reading one of their adventures is parallel to listening to someone’s greatest hits collection. You always expect the best and don’t want to be distracted by the amateur stuff (although most bands usually throw a new track into the mix too). That said, I agree that every good Avengers team has at least one longshot member on it, if for nothing other than offering an outsider’s perspective on the ultimate superhero pantheon. The best incarnations of the Avengers offer balance…between genders, between powers, between strength and weakness, and between overall attitudes. You can see the archetypes, but you’re not distracted by them. The proud, quiet warrior. The hot-headed know-it-all. The underrated wallflower that suddenly bursts out of their shell. Reading a good Avengers tale is like watching a revved up version of the Breakfast Club.

There are things I like about your choices and some that I don’t. Living Lightning does not resonate with me at all. Can’t recall a single appearance of his. For someone who has a near-complete run of West Coast Avengers, that’s probably a problem. I dunno. Maybe I need to go back and reread some issues. I’ve enjoyed the latest appearances of Ms. Marvel, but prior to the last two years or so, she means nothing to me. Having her on the same team as Cap seems like overkill in the “military background, strong leader” realm. My other thoughts are explained in my choices. So, without further ado, here’s my Dream Team:

Captain America: I agree wholeheartedly that Cap is the backbone of the best Avengers teams. He has not only the spirit and the drive, but he possesses the knowledge and organizational skills acquired from years of military training to make the team formidable.

Hawkeye: Surprise, surprise. Hawkeye plays off Cap so brilliantly. He looks up to him while also offering a cocky counterpoint to Cap’s authority. These two can be the best of friends and the bickering old men on the stoop at the same time. And he’s been through a lot recently, which plays into good storytelling.

She-Hulk: My first two picks are just plain dudes with a hell of a lot of training, so I figured we should start getting into some superpowers. She-Hulk offers big power with the sexiness and attitude to match. She and Hawkeye have a brief fling in their past, which makes things even more interesting.

Vision & Stature: I like the idea of Vision & Scarlet Witch, but I feel like that ship has sailed. There’s a lot of bad feelings and messed up continuity there that I don’t want to touch. So, here’s where I get my rookie pick and angle for a bit of the old school as well. Let’s grab two of the Avengers minor league players and give them a promotion. Vision has great powers and a quirky personality (mixed with a bit of the old “let’s transfer someone else’s memories into a robot”). Stature is a legacy character whose powers reflect one of the founding members without all the baggage attached. I’m completely fascinated with her emotional state and how she’d react to playing with the big boys. There’s also something to be said about adding some youth to the team.

Firestar: She “retired” from being a hero in the wake of the Superhero Registration Act, but I think having Captain America leading the team again would bring her back around. She has the elemental and flight powers I’m looking for and she adds another emotional dimension…possible love interest for Hawkeye or possible youthful competition for Stature.

Falcon: This is not my Affirmative Action pick. Falcon may not have a lot of power, but he has the experience and the history. There’s also the potential for a face-off with Hawkeye since both see themselves as Captain America’s right-hand man, both are orphans and both have criminal beginnings. Plus, I just like the way he looks.

I was tempted to add Hercules or Black Knight, just because I always liked them on the Avengers, but that would be too similar to the Stern years. I think I’ve struck a decent balance with this grouping. Pretty evenly split along gender lines. Half of the team consists of heavily trained fighters with less (or no) powers. There’s a strong type, a metal dude, a black guy, some flight, some youth, and a character with long distance energy-based abilities. Therefore, my team looks like this: Captain America is in charge. Hawkeye, She-Hulk and Falcon are his core players. Firestar is the reluctant participant. And Vision and Stature are the wide-eyed rookies.

What do you think of that?

Gasp! Hawkeye you say? On your Avengers team? What a surprise. Yawn.

I kid because I love. We both agree on Captain America, so no comments there. I like Hawkeye as an Avenger. I do. I like his relationship to Captain America, as well as his relationship with She-Hulk (they’ve had some interesting run-ins over the years). He’s a strong hero and he brings a lot to the team. Yet I’d simply prefer not to see him in the group. I’ve come to the conclusion that Kurt Busiek was right when he had Hawkeye leave the Avengers to lead the Thunderbolts; Hawkeye has outgrown the role he tends to be placed in with the Avengers, especially with Cap as the leader. Bring him back for an occassional guest shot, but I just don’t see him as a regular member. He’d be bored with it, and I would too.

I must have written “She-Hulk” as a potential member for my team five times and erased it that many times as well. The reasons to include her are many and varied. She’s got a long history with the team. She’s experienced and powerful. She’s got an interesting personality, and her personality plays well against the personalities of other characters. However, I didn’t include her for two reasons. First, like you, I was trying to not recreate the Roger Stern team. Second, in the end, my favorite She-Hulk stories have never been during her time with the Avengers. I like her so much better in her solo stories, or when she adventures with the Fantastic Four. I have a lot of great She-Hulk moments in my head, and none include her Avengering. It seems that her being in the team restricts her, and makes her conform to the rather dull “superstrong superwoman” character. She needs room to have a personality, and with few exceptions, she’s not given that in the Avengers.

You know I agree with Vision, so no argument there. I would gladly give up the Scarlet Witch for Stature. I agree with everything you say about her, and these two could be a great pair (paired for now, because they come over from Young Avengers together). I think that Stature has more potential than any other neophyte hero in the current Marvel Universe and I truly hope that they explore it.

Firestar? Honestly? I have honestly never liked this character. Kurt Busiek did some wonderful things with her in his run on the title, but even then, she wasn’t actually that interesting; she just had the good fortune to be plopped down in the midst of interesting events. I mean, she got to help Cap, Thor, Iron Man and the Black Panther fight an army of Ultrons….it would have been impossible for her to not look cool. She just seems so dull and I can’t imagine what she could bring to the team that we couldn’t get elsewhere. If you want someone with her powers, what about Firebird? She’s very close, and she’s a more interesting character, because she’s a devout Christian. The major comics companies never want to tackle religion head-on, but I think she’d be fascinating on the team if they kept that facet of her personality in mind when writing her.

The Falcon is a great character, and I like him a lot, but I also can’t see him on the Avengers long term. Besides, my concern would be that a team including Cap, Falcon and Hawkeye would soon splinter into two smaller teams, with the non-superpowered trio and the superpowered quartet. Surely we could find a better minority member than that (and isn’t it sad how few there really are to choose from?); I’d much rather see Black Panther filling that role (he almost made my list).

Hmmm. So, we’re in agreement on Cap, Vision and Stature. Shall we try to hammer out a dream team we can both agree on or shall we agree to disagree? I have a lot more Avengers I can trot out if you want to continue this.

No, no, we’re going to hash this one out. I can outlast you!

Seriously though, I can’t believe your flippant dismissal of Hawkeye. Granted, he’s been the outright leader of a few teams, but that doesn’t make him any less of a team player. I always think it’s good to have a second-in-command who knows what the hell he’s doing and talking about (see the current political situation for a PERFECT example of what NOT to do). Besides, how else are we going to spin off another incarnation of the West Coast Avengers?

I’ll give you the removal of Falcon. He was my Hail Mary pass anyway. I’ve always liked the character, but his similarities to Hawkeye’s role may be a bit of overkill.

I picked Firestar over Firebird because I can’t stand the namby-pamby way Firebird was always written. The reason overtly religious types aren’t used well in comics is that they’re either instantly cliched or ridiculously boring. Firebird straddles the delicate line between those two horrible choices. Besides, Firestar is a mutant. Muties represent!

I’m still going to fight for She-Hulk. It’s either her or Hawkeye. Someone has to have that history with Cap to build a team around, otherwise it just seems like Cap’s recruiting whatever is left over from the hero ranks…and that does not instill confidence in the Avengers name. She-Hulk provides the toughness for the team while also acting as a potential mentor for Stature. Good stuff there.

I like Black Panther, but I’ve always had a problem with a foreign sovereign being part of the team. Whether it’s Namor, T’Challa or Thor (not to mention other “gods” like Ares), their presence always seemed forced and out of place. Besides, what powers does Panther really have to offer that would help the team?

The lineup seems to be begging for someone in a big metal suit with a bunch of built-in weaponry. Iron Man is an Avengers icon, but I can understand any sort of apprehension with adding him to a team alongside Cap, given the current circumstances. War Machine may be a better choice. He has past Avengers team experience, he’s a minority, and he carries an awful lot of firepower. Plus, he adds the Tony Stark influence without being Tony.

If we remove Firestar, we still need someone with energy-based abilities. I’d suggest the ultimate elementally proficient member of the Marvel Universe: Crystal. However, when I envision a framed portrait of “The Avengers” hanging on a gallery wall, her inclusion rings false. She just doesn’t have that oomph. I suppose I’m willing to sacrifice She-Hulk and give you back Ms. Marvel. She has flight, strength and energy powers, but she doesn’t have as close a relationship to Captain America.

If we have War Machine and Ms. Marvel, I think we can then add another member who may not have big power but does have a big personality. I say we bring back Beast. He gives us a scientific outlook as well as a bit of intellectual humor and some mutie street cred. And hey, there are no other blue people on the team.

So…my first attempt at a compromise Avengers lineup is as follows: Captain America, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, War Machine, Beast, Vision and Stature.

Well, I obviously can’t argue with Cap, Ms. Marvel, the Vision and Stature, so we’re closer. That gives us only three characters to hash out.

I love the idea of bringing the Beast back. I think he’s wasted in the X-Men, to be completely honest, and he’s never as much fun. Being stuck as part of Marvel’s Mopey Mutants (and, were I an editor at Marvel, that would be my next pitched title for a new series: The Mopey Mutants), the Beast is forced to become sullen and more subdued. In the Avengers, he’s able to spread his metaphorical wings and be more of a star. Plus, when he’s normally been a member of the team, the team has been overflowing with scientific experts, forcing the Beast away from that role. In this team, he’d be their only real scientist, enabling him to focus more on the science which he so enjoys. Yes, the Beast is in.

War Machine. Man, that’s a toughie. You mention that, when you envision the Avengers, Crystal just doesn’t fit (a sentiment with which I must wholeheartedly agree). Sadly, War Machine feels the same way to me. I’ve always hated the name and the armor with the huge guns; they scream mid-90s comics to me, and that is not a compliment. It never really seemed to fit Rhodes’ personality anyway; while he has been a soldier, I don’t think violence is his first recourse, as the name and armor seem to suggest. However, that’s easily fixable, and I like James Rhodes, so I think this is a perfect idea. I’d prefer to fiddle with the armor a little and come up with a new name; there certainly should be something snappier than War Machine out there. I think I’d prefer Armor Guy, in a nod to X-Factor’s Strong Guy, but I know that we could come up with something even smarter.

That leaves Hawkeye. I’m not sure that I follow your logic that Cap would pick Avengers he has personal ties with. On numerous occasions Cap has led groups of Avengers that he’s not personally friendly with, and he used to pick teams based on their complimentary powers, and not on their personal relations. I think he relies on his leadership skills to bring them together as a team, and if he only surrounds himself with personal contacts, he’ll never develop newer contacts amongst other heroes. So, I don’t think Hawkeye gets a pass just because he shoots pool with Cap.

However, I am okay with including Hawkeye, mostly because we just included James Rhodes. Rhodes currently doesn’t have any real relationship with anyone on the team, and while we could play with that to make Rhodes an outsider, I’d rather not go that route. It was done with the Falcon when he was on the team, and I’d hate to play that card again. Rhodes and Hawkeye have some history, and that should help draw Rhodes more organically into the group.

So, there’s our Avengers: Captain America leading Vision, Stature, Beast, Hawkeye, James Rhodes and Ms. Marvel in their fight to protect the world from those forces against which no single hero can prevail! Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!

I agree that War Machine is a horrible name that instills more fear than security. I’m glad you feel the same way that I do about Beast. You make good points about his near irrelevance in the current X-Men mythology. I miss the days of the quip-ready, happy-go-lucky Hank McCoy. All in all, I think this would be a good field team for the Avengers. I’m not sure we achieved “Dream Team” status…hard to do without including the iconic Iron Man, Thor and Wasp…but I would sure like to read about this team’s exploits.


Dr. Strange: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love this Character

May-16-08

I am a huge Dr. Strange fan. Considering that he’s been around the Marvel Universe since the early 1960s, that he’s been published on a semi-regular basis since then, and that he’s been a member of both the Defenders and Avengers, one might think that many people agree with me. However, it’s the “semi-regular” publishing schedule above that seems to be the problem. Dr. Strange has had numerous series, but seems unable to sustain one that lasts much past 100 issues. When one looks at the talent that have worked on these series, including such respected writers as Roy Thomas, Roger Stern, J.M. DeMatteis and Warren Ellis, as well as such popular artists as Butch Guice, Paul Smith and Mark Buckingham, it causes one to stop and think. Why doesn’t he enjoy enough popularity to at least keep a series going? And how can one reposition him to be a character that can keep a series going?

Part of the problem with Dr. Strange, I believe, is that he is a sorcerer. I’m not sure if I can explain why this is, but it seems that most magical characters have trouble maintaining a popular following. I would say this is true for any magic-based character in any superhero universe. Strange’s counterpart at DC, Dr. Fate, has the same sporadic publishing schedule as Strange. No other magic-based hero in either universe seems to have made even that much of a splash. Marvel includes such characters as Talisman, Shaman, Dr. Druid and even, to an extent, the Scarlet Witch, and none of these characters has ever been able to carry a series. In many ways, one might think that DC would have better luck with such characters. DC has the Vertigo imprint, which has often focused on magical worlds and characters, but even their premiere magical hero, Tim Hunter, has never been able to sustain a series. In their mainstream universe, Shadowpact, a series with many magical characters, also failed to survive. What is it about magical characters that seems to turn off readers? Or are these results typical of many comics published in the major superhero universes, and they have nothing to do with the magical nature of their stars? After all, a lot of comics characters have had problems maintaining an ongoing series. Still, when you compare Strange to his other contemporaries of that time in Marvel, and look at the track record of his original creators (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the co-creators of Spider-Man), it certainly doesn’t look like you want to be a magic-based hero in the Marvel Universe.

I’ve read and loved Dr. Strange stories from the sixties through the current decade, and some of the runs on the character have been brilliant. I have to mention (as I seem to mention him in every thread) that Roger Stern did one of the best runs on Dr. Strange in his publishing history, particularly the storyline where Dr. Strange goes up against Dracula and attempts to destroy all the vampires in the world. Truly remarkable storytelling. There have also been times in Strange’s publishing history when even I was ready to drop the book; Geof Isherwood, you were a great penciler, but I’m not sure you were ready to write the series. But again, can’t this be said of any character that’s existed for as long as Strange has? What is it about the successful times that works for Strange?

One of the things that I feel every successful comic series truly needs is a supporting cast. Many times, Dr. Strange doesn’t really have one. We always have Wong, his faithful manservant….and that’s often it. Roy Thomas gave Strange perhaps the largest supporting cast, with an apprentice, Wong’s fiancee, an undead brother, two female friends, a business manager, and Strange’s girlfriend Clea. I think that’s one of the reasons that Thomas’ run on Strange (which Thomas wrote with his wife) is so successful; there’s a community within the book, and lots of characters to interact. One of the other things the Thomases did was to bring Strange down to the level of mere mortals. I think part of the reason that Strange can be difficult for some people to like is that he isn’t really very….normal. I know, I know, who is normal in a superhero universe, but if we pick someone like Peter Parker (the typical example) he’s someone that the reader can relate to. He has the same problems, fears and speech patterns that we do. No one thinks or talks or acts like Stephen Strange. He’s truly in his own little world. Now, for some readers, that’s probably a plus, as it makes him more interesting, but I imagine for every person that prefers Strange be offputting and odd, another three find him cold and unrelatable.

I think another part of the problem is that Strange is a more cerebral hero. While cerebral heroes can be popular (both Mr. Fantastic and Professor X have been around for some time), they don’t tend to headline their own titles. Most characters that do headline their own titles are action oriented. They have a problem, so they hit it. Or stab it. Or web it. Whatever they do, they take decisive action to neutralize it. While Strange can certainly hold his own in a fight, that’s not really what he’s about. He’s much more likely to find out about a problem which he can deal with, study it, research it, and then come up with a solution. That doesn’t always make for scintillating comics.

So, I’ve identified some of the problems with Strange and why it’s difficult to write him in a successful series. How about other ideas as to why his series don’t end well? Ideas on how to fix these problems?

Ah, good. This one is a bit more difficult to hammer out. I’ve also been a fan of Dr. Strange for a long time. I have a near-complete run of the original Strange Tales, a HUGE Defenders collection and mixed issues from pretty much every incarnation of Strange’s eponymous titles. That said, I can’t really put my finger on why I like the character. The sad thing is that it’s probably the costume that first drew me in. And the Steve Ditko style with the crazy hand gestures and psychedelic backgrounds.

If you look at the root of the character, he’s pretty much a jackass. Don’t know if you caught the direct-to-DVD cartoon that Marvel released last year, but it was pretty faithful to Strange’s origin…he’s a stuck-up surgeon who pities himself when he gets in a car accident that ruins his career. He goes on one of those “meaning of life” searches and climbs the proverbial (and literal) mountain to find the wise man. He’s selfish. He’s accustomed to a certain way of life. And he’s oh so lonely.

Obviously you’ve nailed one of the big problems with the character: his lack of a supporting cast. There have been times in his existence when he was surrounded by some interesting people…Wong is always good (check out Brian K. Vaughan’s The Oathminiseries with art by the Ditko-like Marcos Martin), he plays nice with the Night Nurse, and he and Spider-Man make a good Butch and Sundance team. I’ve never really cared for his pseudo-wife Clea or any of the assorted apprentices he took on. The challenge is that, by definition, the Sorcerer Supreme is fairly independent and doesn’t keep a big social calendar. There are about a billion artificial ways to surround him with “friends,” but none of them stays true to the basis of the character. Personally, I don’t like him as part of the Avengers for this very reason. There doesn’t seem to be any purpose to him being a part of the team (other than the fact that Bendis likes to write him). So that’s step one: how do we get him involved with others?

The other problem you mentioned goes to the core of his history. Magic doesn’t sell books. Even the folks at Marvel know this. Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada tackled this issue a couple years back in a Newsarama interview where he stated that “There are no rules to his universe and from a storytelling perspective that’s problematic.” Sorcery has no boundaries. Every conflict is solved just by the writer making something up out of the blue. Until we can attach some limits to what he can and cannot do (and, consequently, what his fellow magic-based allies and enemies can and cannot do), this problem will never go away. Because of this, Strange is often relegated to the corners of the Marvel Universe. He’s either dealing with the things that no one else is aware of or can’t deal with themselves. Or, he’s forced into an advisory role like his business card should say “Magical Consultant” or something.

Those are two big problems to work around and/or eliminate. Now, what are the strengths of Doctor Strange? What are the things that make him unique and interesting…besides his costume? I’ll start the discussion by offering these insights: 1. He has a unique perspective of the Marvel Universe, having teamed up with many different characters and visited locations and dimensions that others never even knew existed. 2. Vice-versa, his experiences have put him on a higher plane than many of the folks he engages with on a day-to-day basis (perhaps he feels more comfortable around individuals like Silver Surfer and Thor as opposed to everyday folks like Captain America and the tech-based Iron Man). 3. His background provides creators a lot of leeway when it comes to creative foes and abilities.

And, as a beginning storyline, I think there’s something to the idea of finding the source of magic power in the Marvel Universe and organically placing rules and limitations on how it is used. Thoughts?

You’re quite correct when you say that Strange has teamed up with a large proportion of the Marvel Universe. When anything magical effects someone’s life in their title, it’s almost a guarantee that Strange will be present. He’s the go-to magic guy and it’s given him exposure to a great number of heroes. That being said, does that work as a hook for his own book? (And I’m not saying that I thought you were suggesting it, as I don’t think you were….I’m just working through some of the points you mentioned.) Of course, it really doesn’t work that way. Marvel tried that basic idea with their Secret Defenders series in the ’90s, when Strange gathered a group of heroes to him in every issue to go fight something that Strange had detected, but didn’t want to deal with on his own. Unfortunately, not only is that not much of a Dr. Strange book, it’s not much of a book at all, with no strong storyline running more than a few issues. Marvel also seemed to try to make Strange’s book a team-up book itself during the Thomas’ run, when they had a guest star every issue (which was made even worse by crossing over constantly with ever single Infinity Whatever miniseries that was currently being released). Basically, those issues turned Strange into a guest star in his own book, and that didn’t work either.

I certainly think that he relates better to fellow mystics and to more powerful beings than he does your run of the mill superhero (and I agree that he does not fit into the Avengers at all. His inclusion on the team is made even more non-sensical because he refused to get involved in the Civil War, but is now suddenly fine with taking a side and fighting this fight. Great timing Strange, but you’re a little late as the war is over. Perhaps, had you gotten involved sooner, you could have helped to give the war a different ending…). I’d also venture to suggest that your typical superhero isn’t too comfortable around him. Yes, he’s at all of the big crossovers, and he’s often a relatively important figure in them, but he’s also aloof from most of the heroes he encounters. But how can we make this work in a series?

Perhaps a team-up series is what is needed, but not one in the traditional sense. Perhaps a new apprentice is needed, but someone both expected and unexpected. What if we started a series with Dr. Strange training his new apprentice, the Scarlet Witch? In current Marvel continuity, Wanda has been depowered and is living a peaceful life. However, it’s a sure bet that her enemies will find her, and they won’t be too pleased with her. Since she doesn’t have her hex powers, she’ll need to find a way to defend herself. She’s shown an aptitude for magic before, so what if she were to decide that magic is a path she should pursue, to defend herself from those who would do her harm. She and Strange have always been shown to be somewhat close and I think Strange relates to her better than he does to most heroes. Would he train her? I think he would, if she asked, especially when you consider that Wanda has proven herself mentally unstable, so the discipline that magic demands of one would be the perfect way to help Wanda gain control over her mental difficulties (plus, if she did start to slip again, you’d have Strange right there to contain the situation).

This gives us someone who is not a novice in magic, but also someone who has never really delved deep into its secrets, staying with Strange. Wanda could serve, to an extent, as the eyes of the audience, learning things as we do. Although only one other person in the cast (which would include Strange and Wong), she should provide enough of a contrasting personality to make for some interesting interactions around the Sanctum Sanctorum. Plus, Wanda also has ties to the superhero community, which could force Strange to sometimes deal with other heroes, which would be a great way to express how removed he is from the typical do-gooder. If Hawkeye or Wonder Man swing by the Sanctum to chat with Wanda, how do Strange and Wong deal with them? Is there anyway these people can relate to each other?

That’s just one idea. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on other Strange pitches, or on this one.

The Scarlet Witch is a great way to organically include some of the superhero community in a Dr. Strange title. And she seems like a good fit, especially playing off her mental instability. I think it would be a great set-up to have Strange take her in and then she makes up an entire relationship (far beyond what really exists) in her head…almost like Fatal Attraction…which would be made even more tense once we introduce Night Nurse as Strange’s love interest. We could turn the book into not just a magic-based title, but also a sort of romance book (which I think works lovely considering the almost Gothic background of Strange’s powers).

There’s a fine line you’d have to toe with this kind of title. Strange almost needs to stand alone in the Marvel Universe. He needs to explore bizarre dimensions and encounter offbeat characters. At the same time, you need to infuse his book with some regular superhero guest stars in order to tie everything into regular continuity. And there’s the rub (and most likely the reason why his title always falls to the wayside): too many superheroes spoil the book. Magic and other powers don’t work well together…the dynamics clash, the realities contradict each other. Too many guest stars and the book loses its focus. Too few guest stars and the book loses its broader interest.

A few of the plot ideas I worked up for our Defenders post would play here just as well. Dr. Strange has toyed with Black Magic in the past. It would be intriguing to have him come face-to-face with his “dark doppelganger”…the yin to his Sorcerer Supreme yang. I could also see a lot of the magic/superhero characters appearing in this book, folks like Brother Voodoo, Morbius, Werewolf By Night (and the other fringe characters from the Night Shift), Gargoyle, Hellstorm and Terror Inc.

I’d love to see some camaraderie among this group of heroes. Maybe they get together regularly and play poker or paintball or something. Maybe they trade war stories over some drinks at a dive bar somewhere. Strange always comes off as kind of pompous around the hoi polloi of the Marvel world, but maybe among his peers he has a different personality. Maybe they even pick on him or make fun of him. And perhaps they pull magic-based practical jokes on each other! It reminds me of some of my favorite Avengers moments when you see the heroes out of costume just interacting with each other as people.

Personally, I think Strange needs a tangible rogues gallery too. He’s battled against Mephisto, Nightmare and Dormammu so many times that it’s become routine. Let’s create some real human-based threats, some really creepy folks with the worst intentions in mind. Darker villains mixed with more light-hearted characterizations could be a nice dichotomy.

So give me a fully-formed pitch using some of these elements. I forgot to do that with my Namor tweaks (and should probably go back to it). Let’s put our heads together and come up with something we’d all like to read…

Hokey smokes! Could I agree more with your thoughts on Strange’s villains? No, I don’t think I could. I am not a fan, in any title, of using the abstract cosmic entities as regular villains. All of them should pop up from time to time when you’re writing a character at Strange’s power levels, but they should not be the core of the character’s rogues gallery, and they’re pretty much all Strange has. Sure, some people would say that Baron Mordo is a member of Strange’s rogues gallery, but unfortunately, he’s really been beaten down so many times, and we’ve been told so many times that he is weaker than Strange, that he’s lost any amount of threat he once possessed. Also, he’s dead, or at least he was the last time I checked.

Mordo is, however, the direction I would recommend for villains, in that he is human. I know that conventional wisdom dictates that the hero’s adversaries be stronger than the hero himself so that they can be considered a threat to the hero. Unfortunately, with Strange it’s difficult to make his foes more powerful than him, and not have them be cosmic menaces. I think, though, that power is not everything. Luthor and the Joker have been tormenting their respective heroes for over half a century and they’re both physically weaker than their counterpart. A true villain doesn’t just need power to be a threat, and I think your idea of making the villains more in tune with a darker, Gothic style would really work well for this character.

I also like the idea of a love triangle. For decades, Marvel thrived on the love triangle; Stan Lee seemed to want one in every single early Marvel title. You don’t see it as often in current Marvel titles, but it is a good choice for drama and intrigue. It works even better with a character like Wanda involved, since she may not be tied to reality very closely. If Strange is supposed to be helping her retain her sanity, and yet his relationship with Night Nurse is threatening that sanity, what would Strange’s reaction be? Where does his responsibility as Wanda’s friend, physician and teacher end and begin?

I think a pitch is beginning to come together. We want a darker tone; not grim and gritty “Let Me Pull Your Head Off” dark, but something more Gothic and tilting toward horror. We want Wanda in the Sanctum, but she is going to be just part of the story and we don’t want her to overwhelm. I think guest stars can be done organically, and I really like the idea of Strange being different around them. If nothing else, there must be some magical lingo that these guys and gals would throw around when they’re together that most of us wouldn’t know. Surely there’s a sense of camaraderie that exists between them. I mean, the magical world is one that is so different from what the rest of the world sees as reality, that being able to walk in that world must be somewhat like joining an exclusive club. Strange would almost have to be a somewhat different person around these people.

I sincerely hope that I have not just reiterated what you already said in your post. I think we’re getting close here, but I simply can’t seem to write this without being interrupted; I’ve been writing this for an hour, and I’ve been interrupted at least seven times, so I’m going to sign off now, and let you put this all together in a pitch. Hey, you’re great at that stuff!

Aw jeez, you had to throw it back in my lap, huh? This one is a lot harder to wrap my head around. We have a lot of beats so far, but no real plotline to weave it all together. I think we have to establish a few unique villains. We need to set up a new apprentice, a love interest and a deeper supporting cast. We need to delve into the origins and limits of magic in the Marvel Universe. And we need to give Strange more of a personality and more of a sense of community (at least among his peers). I don’t have a complete answer for any of these problems, but I’ve got some notes that I’ll share with you. We should be able to hammer something out together.

Taking my points in order, let’s first look at potential villains. As I’ve said, my initial thought for an archenemy (a la Luthor or Joker) is to establish someone as Strange’s polar opposite whose ultimate goal is to see Dr. Strange fail. The easiest thought here is to bring back someone who crossed paths with Strange long ago…someone like Cyrus Black. Or to bring in someone who has a past with supernatural characters and demons, such as Dr. Glitternight. Either one would come as a surprise to Strange and could be slowly revealed over the course of the story. As far as new and different characters go, there are a lot of themes we could follow. The first that comes to mind for me is something classically Gothic or Victorian-inspired. This could take the form of a character based on someone such as Edgar Allan Poe or Lizzie Borden. We could bring back a character like The Hangman, but make him much more sinister…surrounded by the ghosts of crows, like shadows (interestingly enough, a group of crows is called a “murder” and “A Murder of Crows” would be a great title for a story arc). Perhaps a character called the Undertaker that has more of a gritty Western or even a straight-off-the-Mayflower feel and he could have a host of minions, like Children of the Corn, setting him up as their Fagin. That’s pretty creepy. Maybe some villain that has something to do with the ancestors of our forefathers and their Freemasonry ties…connected somehow to the secrets of America. Pirates are always a good foil…historic and knee-deep in murder and lost souls. Maybe there’s some value in pursuing the spectral manifestation of his deceased sister as a villain? And last but not least, perhaps Strange should face someone who represents the next generation. What if we gave him a younger foe who employs all the trappings of the Steampunk genre? I could see a bad guy who looks a lot like the Jack Knight Starman, with his goggles and pulp serial-influenced staff. Maybe he has a bunch of magically-imbued gadgets and whiz-bang inventions. I like that a lot, a bit of the old and the new.

We’ve already selected Scarlet Witch as his new apprentice, and I think that’s a perfect fit and makes a great amount of sense. Inject Night Nurse as the love interest and, like we discussed, you can build a lot of friction and potential (the story arc title of “Bizarre Love Triangle” just screams out to me). But these two, along with Wong, don’t make a very full supporting cast. Personally, I’d love to see more of Brother Voodoo and Michael Morbius hanging around and offering advice and assistance. Beyond that, there must be people that Strange interacts with on a professional, if not personal, level. How about giving him a historian/librarian figure for research purposes (ala Buffy and her Watcher)? A professor of the occult would make sense, as would a psychologist or social anthropologist…or even an FBI profiler if we get involved in weird serial killers or crime patterns. It would also make sense, given his collection of magical items, that he would be acquainted with a monster hunter (or relic hunter) such as Elsa Bloodstone. Finally, in a storyline concept I haven’t mentioned before, let’s give Strange a career. What if he wrote a book about his life? Would he have an agent? Perhaps some “magic groupies?” For a little humor, what if he goes on a book tour and has a stand-up comedian as his opening act? It may seem a little out of place, but it could also offer an outsider perspective to Strange’s daily life.

The next point may be the hardest to crack: the origins and limitations of magic in the Marvel Universe. I’m just going to throw these things out there and see if anything sticks. Most of the magic found in literature and legend seems to stem from religion, specifically lesser religions like Wicca or Voodoo and native groups like Druids, Shamans, Witch Doctors and the Aborigines. This would imply that magic has a natural base attuned to the Earth itself. Now, what if magic is powered by the Gods, who are actually the true denizens of Earth, and each pantheon has its own followers. The Gods with the most followers have the most power, but their magic has less effect due to being “watered down.” The most potent magic comes from those who haven’t lost their relation to the planet. But the source of the magic isn’t the Gods themselves. What if the source was something called The Belief and it was held inside something intangible called The Tapestry (stick with me, I’m going into Grant Morrison mode). Now, The Tapestry is made up of threads called “reality rifts” that allow the magic users to peer into the truth of the planet (kind of like The Matrix). And what if there was a limited amount of magic because there are only allowed to be a set number of magic users…each one acting as an anchor or “hem point” for a particular rift? There is a true balance needed in order to keep The Tapestry whole and to keep The Belief contained. Perhaps there are too many magic users and it gets to the point where magic is being rationed…when someone is using it, someone else cannot. This could lead to natural limitations on magic in order to keep it flush with power. Let’s say that magic can no longer be used to harm, only to dissuade or distract. it must be defensive or protection-based. Even dark magic can no longer damage an opponent, instead it causes fear or confusion. This could easily be mandated across all of Marvel’s magic-based characters.

Springing from that comes the idea for another group of characters who could be allies or villains: the insane. Perhaps they’ve caught a glimpse of The Belief and cannot fathom its truth. We could bring back characters like Mad Jim Jaspers, Tatterdemalion or even Jamie Braddock and his crazy quantum strings. They could act as prophets or guides for Strange. They could be protectors of The Tapestry. Or hell, they could just be there to fight.

The last point should occur organically after all of these other things come into place. By putting Strange around more people, his personality will develop. We can create a magic lingo similar to the style in the Ocean’s 11 movies…where the characters discuss grifting schemes and famous ploys, but this lingo is based in terms of Vaudeville acts, early stage magicians, various turn-of-the-century inventors (Tesla, Edison) and a number of religious references like saints and relics…the Double Houdini, the St. Crispin’s Folly, the 23 Skiddoo. etc. Could be a lot of fun actually.

Couple all of these ideas with a general theme headed more into the macabre and horror side of magic, that focuses more on the “what could happen if…” side of things, and I think you’ve got a winning formula that would touch on the dark, the different, and the uncomfortably humorous all at once. Strange needs to be less about the 1960s cosmic vibe with its weird dimensions and backgrounds and more about the counterculture of today with its effects on the planet and its resources. Think less hippie and more Emo or Goth, right? It may even be worthwhile, if we pursue the young Steampunk angle, to make Strange the proverbial fish out of water who doesn’t understand this cultural shift and can’t quite come to terms with it.

Wow…that’s a lot to think about. I’ll give you the weekend to mull it over…

I’ve had to read this a few times, but my final feeling is….wow. There’s a real story here. I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure that magic needs to be strictly defined and structured; to me that somewhat defeats the purpose of magic. Yes, I know in the hands of a lazy writer magic can become its own deus ex machina and every story can be finished by the magician literally pulling a rabbit out of their hat. That being said, I think you can have a strong story without those clear definitions. However, I also think your ideas on how to define magic are very strong and could make for some interesting stories, so I’d certainly support that direction.

It sounds to me like we’ve got some arcs ready to go. The first story arc, I think, should be where Strange actually takes Wanda in as his apprentice. By giving Strange an apprentice, we have the opportunity to delineate the rules of magic you’ve created, since Strange would be explaining things to Wanda. We wouldn’t want to dump lots of information on the reader at once, but you could spread the exposition out over the course of many issues, parsing the information out to the reader in ways that would make them want to know more. I see Wanda, Wong and Night Nurse as our regular supporting characters; those characters who we see in every story arc, and really, in every issue. Wanda and Wong live with him, and Night Nurse must visit quite a bit (kind of like Morgana Blessing in the older issues, but not as annoying). The other types of characters you mention are a great idea, but I think they need to be introduced slowly, over multiple arcs. Strange’s world is so different from the world of other hero’s that I think we want to allow the readers to grow into it organically, rather than shoving many characters at them in the first arc.

I think the villain in the first story arc should be someone more “classically” magical, so to speak. Reinventing an older supernatural villain would be a fine choice. Your description of the new Hangman is a little too much like the Scarecrow (Marvel, not DC) for me and Dr. Glitternight sounds a little too silly for me to take him seriously. I like the name Cyrus Black, and if you don’t mind Harry Potter fans confusing him with Sirius Black, I think he might be the way to go. I still don’t think that Black can be as strong, magically, as Strange is (the job title of Sorcerer Supreme kind of precludes others from having the same magical powers as Strange), but I think he’s a planner, perhaps one with access to some powerful artifacts or monstrous servants (enter Elsa Bloodstone). I also love the idea of Strange having a Watcher-type of contact, who helps with research, and could help him figure out what some of the magical items of power Black is using might be.

I think the second story arc might best focus on a more gritty, grim villain, someone based on Poe or Borden as you suggested. They know some magic, but where they really become a threat is in their ruthlessness and, perhaps, insanity. Their magic is more cult based and much of it comes through ritual. I think that Strange may be somewhat surprised and taken aback by the sorts of crimes this villain would commit, and the lengths this villain would go to in order to achieve his goals. This would be a good time for Strange to seek out and become acquainted with a new ally; the FBI profiler type that you mention. Strange and his allies are somewhat out of their element with the crimes this villain is performing. Strange has seen some crazy stuff, but there’s always been an element of civility behind it. Mordo may have been a gruesome creep, but he didn’t do a heck of a lot in the way of human sacrifice. This guy does, and it throws Strange for something of a loop. This also might be a good time for him to seek aid from Brother Voodoo, since voodoo (in my admittedly limited knowledge) also tends to be more ritual based.

I’d save the Steampunk baddie for another story arc, although he’s my favorite, I have to admit. I love the idea of someone mixing science and magic (it’s an area of Doom’s character that I never felt was addressed enough); there’s so much that can be done with it. Again, it also gives the villain an edge over Strange without making him more magically powerful than Strange. And again, it’s also an area where Strange is somewhat at a loss; sure, he can counter this guy’s magical abilities, but how much does Strange know about technology? Can he even program a VCR? It also gives Strange a need for another ally; enter Dr. Michael Morbius, who knows all about technology as a scientist.

In amongst these plots, we have the slow simmering love triangle between Wanda, Strange and Night Nurse, which can explode into it’s own plot at some point. Plus, we throw in some scenes which shows what Strange does when he’s not being the Sorcerer Supreme, as he hangs out with the other magical members of the Marvel Universe that we’ve mentioned. The only point I’m stuck on is his job. I somewhat see where you’re going; after all, where does Strange get his money? He hasn’t held a job since he became Sorcerer Supreme and he spent all of his fortune before that day. To an extent, writing a book would work for him; he could set his own hours and he certainly has a lot of experiences from which to draw. What sort of book would he write? You suggest an autobiography. I’m not sure if that would work for two reasons. First of all, Morgana Blessing wrote his biography when she thought he was dead in the early 90s (he even went on a talk show to discuss it). Second, I see Strange as not really wanting his life to be open to the public; I don’t think he’d want people to panic when they realized what he’s been through. Perhaps you were suggesting that he write a book about his life before he became the Sorcerer Supreme, which could be interesting, but it doesn’t have much of an ending if he wants to keep his life secret. “I had a horrible accident, became a drunk, but everything got better and now I….don’t do much.”

At the same time, there’s potential there. Perhaps Strange would spin his non-magical story into a self-help type of book? Perhaps he’d write about the non-mystic teachings of the Ancient One, exhorting people to throw off the shroud of commercialism and live a life of peace and tranquility. It’s a little cheesy, but it also seems like the sort of thing Strange might write. I almost suggested he write fiction (maybe fantasy or science fiction, based on his adventures, but which he markets as fiction), but I’m not sure I see him doing so, as it seems to trivialize what he does. I’d love to do something like market him as a romance novelist, but that seems way too far out there for him. Besides, if we want him doing a book tour, we need the sort of book that lends itself to those tours, and people love them some self-help books. And who wouldn’t want to write the scene where Strange guests on Oprah?

That seems pretty pitchy to me. Thoughts?

I think it’s great how you’ve managed to work an additional supporting character into each story arc and you’ve pinpointed which one would work for each aspect of the story. I’m still a little unsure of how we work the villains into the action. Obviously, if we use Cyrus Black, there will be scenes showing him plotting a comeback (without revealing his face). He has a beef with Strange that was never fully explored. That one makes sense. And the opening arc with Wanda and Night Nurse is easy enough to establish. But beyond that, how do we approach making the bad guys a threat to Strange. I mean, the guy never seems to leave his house. I can’t imagine that his potential foes would just walk up and knock on his front door. Perhaps we need to give him a job to get him out in the public and have some interaction. You can only get away with so much coincidence and mistaken identity ploys before it gets ridiculous. I also wouldn’t want to rely on his allies coming to him for assistance as a way to launch every plot.

So the big stumbling block is still his career. How does he put food on the table? Stephen Strange has a smarmy personality. I could see him hamming it up on those celeb-journalism shows. I don’t know how much the public knows about him in general. Does anyone remember him as a surgeon? Does anyone know he is a magician? He could potentially write a New age sort of book…a spiritual health book written by a real medical doctor would create good buzz. Maybe he’s bored of being trapped in his secret home all the time and decides to get a little public face time by becoming a stage magician (a la Zatanna). He could write a book on the history of magic, but put a realist spin on it (coming from the medical field) to mask his true background. Or perhaps there’s some sort of political turmoil in the Ancient One’s homeland of Kamar-Taj (or Tibet) and Strange comes out as a pseudo-celebrity to defend the country. Any of these could be pre-established in our first story arc and then fleshed out as the base for the whole Wanda situation.

I totally agree that any new villains should be a different type of problem for Strange. The cosmic situations and the continuous magic-versus-magic fights get old quick. The steampunk angle enables us to show Strange getting frustrated. Any historically-based opponent allows us to add an element of research to the confrontation. And then the horror cult thing is just weird and disturbing (I still like “A Murder of Crows” as a title).

Ooh…I know a way to start this whole thing. What if there’s a truly bizarre serial killer haunting the Marvel Universe? Maybe using a team of possessed children to commit the murders (eww…twisted)? Dr. Strange has just finished a book about psychic investigators and mystical ways to solve crimes, using his medical background as a sort of anti-authority. During an appearance on his book tour, he’s approached by the FBI profiler we’ve discussed and he gets brought in to the search for the killer. Along the course of the investigation, he ends up revealing his true position to the profiler…this brings trust and adds the profiler to Strange’s inner circle. The plot also puts Strange out in the public eye, which could be a launching pad for others to seek his help or want to stop his interference.

Damn, now I’m thinking it might be smart to have him write a book “debunking” hauntings from the studious medical point of view and have his book tour take place in supposedly haunted locations. Is that too much of a cop out? Meh.

Either way, the book tour thing really helps progress the arcs we’ve proposed. New locations offer more chances for conflicts, experiences and information. It would add an additional element to have his supporting cast spread out across the country (or even the world, depending on his tour stops). People coming in and going out of the storylines organically, as you’ve mentioned, makes it seem more natural than the whole “Scooby Gang” vibe of something like Buffy.

Hmph. Seems to me that we’ve come up with about two years worth of material, depending on how it all pans out, and the potential to keep the series going in a great direction for a long time to come. I really need to work my contacts to get in touch with some Marvel editors. I wonder how they’d feel about our little blog?