Friday, June 24, 2011

RIP Gene Colan

I've really been enjoying the blog set up by Jim Shooter, one-time editor-in-chief of Marvel. He's been delivering his side of the story surrounding some very contentious moments of comic book history which went down during his tenure. Having grown up hearing the opposition's case, it's interesting to hear his defense.

Last night, reflecting on his most recent posts about how he became editor-in-chief, I was reminded of an incident at the San Diego Comic Con 2009. At a 1970s panel, Gene Colan delicately touched on his reasons for leaving Marvel, never naming any names. After this gracious display, the moderator, Mark Evanier, wondered if his other panelists could share stories like Colan's, encouraging them to be similarly diplomatic. To this, Doug Moench quickly grabbed the microphone and intoned, "I'll say it: Jim Shooter."

I did laugh with Moench, but his behaviour - his evident still-sore feelings towards Shooter - really highlighted what a class act Colan was. The 70s panel was supposed to have been preceded by a Gene Colan panel, but he missed it, leaving Evanier to scramble an ad-hoc "Colan tribute" panel in its place. Colan received a few rounds of applause when he arrived for the 70s panel. I was concerned about his absence, as his health problems were well-documented, but he assured the crowd that being at Comic Con was a tremendous lift to him.

At the same time I was reflecting on that episode, Gene Colan had passed away.

I didn't really take notice of Colan's name until I began digging up back issues of Tomb of Dracula. His art was so important to the tone and consistency of the series and later I found it looked even better in black & white (via the Essentials library)!

I wasn't as crazy about Colan's super hero work; his Iron Man looked so rough, with none of the sleek sheen I expected (having been raised on Bob Layton's designs). But when Iron Man wasn't in costume, I had no complaints about his work on the series. He was meant to be drawing jackets, pants and skirts, not spandex!

My love for Marvel's 1950s Atlas output eventually led me to Colan's earlier work (I have a few coming in the mail, actually). It's particularly neat to see Colan's war stories, which are almost always the highlight of whatever issue they appear in. The full page splashes he used to introduce each of his tales made them stand apart from what his contemporaries were doing and his depiction of military battlefields and equipment were always convincing.

I'm sad for Colan's family to have lost him, but as a comic book fan I feel nothing but gratitude to him for living and producing as long as he did; I think it's particularly great how his health problems a few years ago brought him attention and adulation from most corners of fandom. Gene Colan can't be replaced, but his work will never be forgotten.

Monday, June 20, 2011

My current comic list

After looking over the 52 new issue #1s being introduced by DC Comics in September (see them all here), I concluded I wouldn't be sampling any of them, deciding instead to wait for critical reactions to the series and plan to collect the trades at a later date; I'll probably wind up buying the trades of Grant Morrison's Superman, at the very least.

This left me considering the current state of my comic book purchasing. I'm afraid the list has become very thin, particularly since Marvel gives me everything they publish. For the other publishers, there are still titles I'm very interested in, but I wish there were more.

Books which have almost completed their run:

  • Xombi (DC Comics) In which an odd hero with odd powers combats odd forces of evil. It's a little odd. Due to end with #6, owing to DC's line-wide reboot in September.
  • John Byrne's Next Men (IDW) Resuming Byrne's 1990s series about people with superhuman powers and the often harsh effects those powers have on the world around them, this is due to wrap up with issue #9.
  • Comic Book Comics (Evil Twin) An ambitious history of comic books told in comic book format. There's more than enough material to keep this series running for years, but sadly it's due to end soon with issue #6.
  • Marineman (Image Comics) Ian Churchill created this hero as a child and has brought him to life as a labour of love. Will end with #6.
  • Royal Historian of Oz (SLG) An amusing tale of an Oz fan who finds the land of Oz is real and what happens when he absconds with a treasure trove of Oz-originating materials. Ends with #5.

Books which come out infrequently:

  • Rasl (Cartoon Books) Jeff Smith's slow burn story of a man who can travel between realities; gaps of 4 months between issues are typical.
  • Kurt Busiek's Astro City (DC Comics) Kurt Busiek's creator-owned series of a world of super heroes told from a grounded perspective. Has historically had difficulty shipping monthly and has now been absent more than a year.

Books which come out regularly:

  • Usagi Yojimbo (Dark Horse) Stan Sakai's rabbit ronin in feudal Japan has been running since 1987 with very few gaps. Usagi plays to a small but devoted audience.
  • Atomic Robo (Red 5) The adventures of a robot hero, often checking in on him at various points in his 20th century history. Played primarily for laughs, Atomic Robo seems to be on the verge of being a hit; for now, it's a cult favourite.
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (IDW) Larry Hama revisits the continuity from his 80s-90s G.I. Joe series, with even some of his original artistic collaborators reuniting with him. Hama's wry perspective on the world is constantly amusing and his strange ability to make G.I. Joe plausible keep me entertained.
  • Glamourpuss (Aardvark-Vanaheim) Although I've never read Dave Sim's Cerberus and don't really have an interest in the histories of the comic strip artists he recounts here, I like his brash sense of humour; some of his pieces, like the bit about the CN Tower, are inspired.

Having seen what I currently consider worth buying, if you have a recommendation to make please leave it in the comments.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Y kant Blackmask spel?

As a fan of older literature which have fallen into the public domain and yet are not readily available, I've made a few Amazon purchases to try and complete my collections of authors such as John Buchan and Sax Rohmer. Unfortunately, I soon discovered some of the public domain publishers were very fly-by-night - generic covers, spelling errors, punctuation errors, pages out-of-sequence; amongst these are a few samplings by the publisher Blackmask.

But! I chanced to notice Blackmask had a copy of Sax Rohmer's Bimbashi Baruk of Egypt and its cover certainly demonstrated a superior sense of design. Clearly if some effort had been put into the cover, surely this would be reflected in the contents as well? Look at the cover!

I was so pleased by the effort Blackmask made at being creative that I missed a certain unforgiveable typo. Bimbashi Baruk of... "Eygpt?!" Does no one at Blackmask have a copy of Word they could use to run spellcheck?

Needless to say, I'm done with buying public domain books from shady publishers like these.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Official Index to the Avengers: September!

Completing the most recent incarnation of the Official Index to the Marvel Universe trade paperback collections, the Avengers edition ships this September!


Marvel brought together its greatest heroes in 1963 to form the world’s premier super-team: the Avengers! Now, an account of their adventures through the intervening decades is assembled in a single volume for the first time. The OFFICIAL INDEX chronicles every issue of the first three volumes of AVENGERS, Brian Michael Bendis’ acclaimed NEW AVENGERS and more — covering more than 600 issues with detailed synopses, character breakdowns and fascinating trivia. Collecting the Avengers chapters from AVENGERS, THOR & CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE OFFICIAL INDEX TO THE MARVEL UNIVERSE #1-15. 352 PGS./Rated A …$19.99 ISBN: 978-0-7851-5522-5

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Recommended reading: X-Men

Although I've prepared recommended reading lists for many Marvel comic titles which have been made into films, I didn't expect to write one up on the occasion of X-Men: First Class's release. In fact, I wasn't certain I would even watch First Class, on account of how little I thought of X-Men 3: the Last Stand.

And yet, here we are; First Class is actually a rather excellent movie and afterward, as the comic-savvy member of the group who watched the film, I was quickly asked to explain some of the background on the characters and plots used in the picture. This brought forward a few happy memories of the X-Men as a comic book franchise, so I decided to go ahead with a recommended reading list after all. Because the X-Men's publications cover such a vast array of titles, I'm going to divide the franchise up by decades, discuss a few specifics and generalities about the franchise at the time, then submit my recommendations. Shall we begin?

THE 1960s

As one of the founding titles in the Marvel Universe, X-Men was one of two (along with Daredevil) which I feel struggled for a long time to discover its voice. Perhaps it's because X-Men was launched as an attempt to recreate the successful Fantastic Four formula (just as Daredevil was aping Spider-Man), yet it ignored many of the elements which Stan Lee & Jack Kirby had already perfected in Fantastic Four; while the FF had no alternate identities, the X-Men maintained double lives, effectively doubling the cast by devoting time to the X-Men in and out of costumes. I don't believe the original X-Men never really gelled in their civilian guises, which were spent mainly at beatnik coffee shops. They did gradually all find romantic matches (while Cyclops was finally paired with Jean Grey), but I never felt the team was as down-to-Earth as the FF. They didn't have the FF's occasional money troubles (Xavier was loaded), nosey neighbours (they lived in the country) or even the occasional bouts of colds and flu's (a staple of Spider-Man comics). The team also graduated from Xavier's school in the first year, making their continued presence at the school a little odd.

I feel the X-Men didn't become remarkable until near the end of the 60s when Roy Thomas & Neal Adams had their all-too-brief run; even then, it's primarily for Adams' art as his design for Havok is a classic and his interpretation of the Sentinels became the standard.

Recommended: X-Men#56-65 (Neal Adams' run)

THE 1970s

After flirting with cancellation, the X-Men returned in a big way with an almost entirely retooled lineup in 1975, with Cyclops now leading Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and a certain Canucklehead who would snikt his way into our hearts, Wolverine. With Chris Claremont seizing control over the X-Men franchise for the next 16 years, the X-Men developed a consistent creative voice and Claremont's inter team banter and relationships became the new standard for successful super hero team books. Claremont also dropped the X-Men's secret identities from the book, as the team would simply travel incognito in civilian clothes rather than maintain double lives. I feel this eventually led the X-Men franchise into a incestuous world populated only by mutants, their pals and their enemies rather than interacting with the world at large, but at the time it was a much better fit than the old secret identities.

Recommended: Giant-Size X-Men#1 (the new team forms), X-Men#112-113 (terrific X-Men-Magneto fight), X-Men#117 (Xavier's origin), X-Men#120-121 (X-Men vs. Alpha Flight), X-Men#125-128 (X-Men vs. Proteus)

THE 1980s

The 1980s opened with the infamous "Dark Phoenix Saga" which led Jean Grey down a path of corruption, until she finally took her own life to save the universe; it wasn't where Claremont originally meant to bring his story, but it brought the X-Men franchise to even greater highs. It was almost immediately followed by "Days of Future Past," the first of many X-Men stories to delve into time travel as a future version of the young X-Man-in-training Kitty Pryde tries to change the past. These two stories hung a pall over the X-Men's world, but Claremont still kept matters even-handed with yarns like "Kitty's Fairy Tale" and his "X-Babies" romps.

The X-Men (their title now called "Uncanny X-Men") became so successful that their franchise expanded with Xavier training a new class of teenagers in New Mutants, Wolverine taking his first solo adventure in a mini-series (later receiving the first of many ongoing solo books), the original five X-Men reunited in X-Factor, with even Jean Grey back in the fold (long story short: she wasn't really dead) and the X-Men-in-England premise of Excalibur. The additional books distilled Claremont's own voice in the franchise, but I felt his former editor Louise Simonson complimented his ideas in her X-Factor book. In fact, I don't think X-Factor gets enough credit from X-Men fans - her subplot about Cyclops going insane over Jean's seeming resurrection is still great. Kudos are also due to her "Fall of the Mutants" stories in which Apocalypse transformed Angel into his Horseman of Death while Cyclops and Jean resolved the tension of their relationship. Simonson (joined at times by her husband Walter on art), along with talents like Art Adams, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr. and Alan Davis brought new energy to the X-Men's world.

Recommended: X-Men#129-137 ("Dark Phoenix Saga"), X-Men#141-142 ("Days of Future Past"), Uncanny X-Men#153 ("Kitty's Fairy Tale"), Uncanny X-Men#161 (Xavier & Magneto's history revealed), Uncanny X-Men#162-167 (X-Men vs. Brood epic), Wolverine#1-4 (Wolverines goes to Japan), Uncanny X-Men#168 (Kitty brings home Lockheed the dragon), Uncanny X-Men#181 (X-Men in Japan), Uncanny X-Men#182 (Rogue loses control of her personalities), New Mutants#18-31 (Bill Sienkiewicz run), Uncanny X-Men#190-191 (barbarian world), Uncanny X-Men#198 (Storm in Africa), New Mutants Special Edition#1/Uncanny X-Men Annual#9 (both teams go to Asgard), Uncanny X-Men#200 (Magneto's trial), New Mutants Annual#2 (Cypher saves the team), Uncanny X-Men Annual#10 (the horrifying X-Babies), X-Factor#15 ("death" of Angel), X-Factor#18 (Cyclops goes mad), X-Factor#24-26 ("Fall of the Mutants"), Excalibur Special Edition (Excalibur forms), Excalibur#1-7 (Alan Davis' first run), Uncanny X-Men#254-255 (Moira MacTaggert's X-Men crash and burn)

THE 1990s

Claremont departed the X-Men in 1991 and the franchise finally fell on hard times; although it remained on top with fandom, the book appeared to be less about creative expression and more about milking a cash cow. Peter David had an all-too-brief run on X-Factor, envisioning the team as government agents, while Alan Davis wrote & drew a terrific series of Excalibur stories and even Scot Lobdell could turn out a nicely restrained "sit around and talk" issue. But overall, the franchise was obese; too many characters, too many interrupted plots, too many titles (including a second X-Men team book dubbed "X-Men"). The New Mutants graduated into the darker X-Force series (and spinning their leader Cable into his own book), but a new cast of students eventually arrived with Generation X, while the minor Wolverine character Maverick gained and lost his own series in just 12 issues, becoming the first X-Men spin-off to suffer low sales.

Recommended: Uncanny X-Men#268 (Wolverine & Captain America's past revealed), Excalibur#42-67 (Alan Davis returns to write/draw), Cable: Blood & Metal#1-2 (surprisingly good background of Cable), Uncanny X-Men#297 (Xavier briefly regains his mobility), X-Factor#87 (team is psychoanalyzed), Uncanny X-Men#308 (team celebrates Thanksgiving, Cyclops & Jean get engaged), Uncanny X-Men#309 (Xavier struggles to be happy for Cyclops & Jean), X-Men#30 (Cyclops & Jean marry), X-Men/ClanDestine#1-2 (okay, recommended because I love ClanDestine more than any other factor), X-Men#-1 (Magneto & Xavier's last conversation as friends)

THE 2000s

A lot of the fat was pulled from the franchise in the 2000s, although it steadily grew back. Claremont returned to the X-Men just in time for 2000's feature film, but he was swiftly shunted aside to the spin-off X-Treme X-Men, while Grant Morrison rebuilt the franchise in his image, ballooning the number of mutants into the millions, developing a host of just plain odd characters and flinging Cyclops into the arms of former villain Emma Frost. I felt Morrison was at his best with "Riot at Xavier's," where a gang of Xavier's own students turn violent. When Morrison departed the ranks of mutants were quickly culled, paving the way for books like Peter David's new X-Factor, casting the team as private investigators rather than government agents. A third team book was added to the ranks with Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, while Xavier - repeatedly undermined by stories which cast him as morally gray or even sinister - was rehabilitated in X-Men: Legacy. Various attempts were made to revive the old young mutants in training formula after Generation X was cancelled, leading to New Mutants, New X-Men, Young X-Men and back to New Mutants again.

Recommended: New X-Men#134-138 ("Riot at Xavier's"), X-Factor#16 (Madrox discovers one of his dupes has his own family), World War Hulk: X-Men#1-3 (Hulk smashes the X-Men), X-Men: Legacy#208-210 (Xavier redeemed), X-Factor#39 (birth of Madrox & Siryn's baby), X-Factor#40 (Madrox turns suicidal)

2010 to present

The X-Men took out a fourth series in 2010 ("X-Men") and Uncanny X-Men is set to be cancelled and relaunched in the near future. Recently, stories have begun to rebuild the mutant population, forming the entire premise behind Kieron Gillen's great Generation Hope series. Beyond that, Wolverine stars in two ongoings of his own, while the other team books include X-Factor, New Mutants and Uncanny X-Force.

Recommended: Generation Hope#1-6 (Hope's team of new mutants begin recruiting)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Missed it: Farley Granger & Sidney Lumet, both RIP

I'm sorry to say I missed word of the passing of actor Farley Granger (March 27th) and director Sidney Lumet (April 9th). Both were creative people whose work I enjoyed, so here's a few thoughts on the duo:

Farley Granger is notable to me (and likely many others) primarily for his appearances in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and Rope (1948). In the former, he was the film's protagonist while in the latter, he portrayed a villain.

Many Hitchcock fans find his male protagonists drab (Robert Donat, Cary Grant & Jimmy Stewart being three notable exceptions) and I've seen Granger's performance in Strangers cited as a prime example, particularly when cast against Robert Walker's psychopathic Bruno, one of the great Hitchcock villains. The film, of course, is the notorious picture where two men discuss swapping murders, but one of them takes the idle conversation seriously.

However, where I part ways with the majority of Hitch fans is Rope, which I number amongst my favourites of the master's output. As one of the two murderers in Rope, I felt Granger stole the show as his nervous fear the murder will be discovered maintains most of the tension of the film, especially as his partner (John Dall) insists on toying with their party guests, giving them opportunities to guess the murder has been done, until Jimmy Stewart's character begins to catch on.

I've also seen Granger in Hans Christian Andersen and the adaptation of "Gift of the Magi" in O. Henry's Open House; another of his films, They Drive by Night, has been on my search-and-see list for a while.

I only began to catch on to how exceptional Sidney Lumet was about four years ago when his name kept turning up in the credits of movies I had just discovered. I was awestruck to learn he was still alive and making films. It couldn't last forever, but I'm impressed Lumet's career lasted from 1957 to 2007.

First and foremost, when I think of Lumet I'll think of 12 Angry Men (1957), my favourite legal drama, in which 12 jurors debate a murder trial, with only Henry Fonda's reasonable juror arguing for the defendant's innocence. Lumet's other fantastic legal picture, the Verdict (1982) was a neatly restrained drama with Paul Newman as a downtrodden lawyer trying to win a case by the book while his opponents pull out every dirty trick. Similarly, Lumet's Serpico (1973) had Al Pacino as a lone man against the system. Lumet's probably going to be best-remembered for Network (1976), the film everyone quotes but no one watches; it's a very broad picture in how it depicts the merciless exploitation of television and perhaps not the blockbuster today it was back in '76 (when Beatrice Straight won an Academy Award for a role which is frankly more of a cameo than a supporting performance), but well worth watching.

Granger and Lumet; two fine men, both shall be remembered.

Friday, June 3, 2011

In comic media res

Now that even Hitler has weighed in on DC's reboot, it doesn't seem like there's much else worth talking about. Having spent Wednesday discussing issue #1s which didn't work on me, then on Thursday describing a line-wide jumping-on point which didn't really work, I thought I'd close this Friday by considering a few instances where I jumped into an ongoing series and stayed with it.

Since I've already discussed first issues and jumping-on points, I'd like to consider the alternative - jumping into a series in the thick of it and somehow becoming enamored with the series. How does it happen? Read on for examples...

Captain America#355

I blogged about this one last year; it wasn't my first issue of Captain America (a friend of my father's gave the family almost every issue from Cap#293-299), but #355 was where I began reading Mark Gruenwald's Captain America, keeping pace almost every issue until Gruenwald departed with #443. Although this issue was the first part of a three-part story where Captain America was transformed into a teenager, it had running subplots and old continuity to the galore; so what did my 11 year old self find appealing about it and why did I stick around?

Let's start with the continuity. The issue opens with Captain America examining dozens of monitor screens with references to the past few months of Cap (and Avengers besides). None of it is important to the story at hand, but only hinted at the larger world Cap inhabited, so I was daunted. Much was made of the recent death of John Walker, the replacement Captain America who was assassinated in Cap#351. As the issue opens, Cap learns Walker is alive and the government has a new identity for him (the U.S.Agent, introduced in the previous issue). All of this is dealt with through conversations, so the business involving Walker went right over my head; I had no idea who Walker was. Still, it was just one conversation.

Then the real plot starts as Cap is contacted by his old flame Bernie Rosenthal (whom I was acquainted with from Cap#293-299!). She asks Cap to find her missing teenage sister. Recognizing a pattern of missing teens, Cap has the odd idea to go undercover as a teenager by employing the mischevious Sersi to turn back the clock; of course, when Cap was a teen he was a scrawny, sickly kid, so he's in no shape for a fight. Because Captain America hadn't met Sersi before, the story does a fine job of introducing her to new readers, such as I.

The story diverts to follow up on Battlestar, who was Walker's sidekick. He's been trying to find out if Walker is still alive and finally learns the truth here, but is told if Walker wants to see him, he'll contact him. Hoping to find a lead on Walker, he goes to Cap's former sidekick Falcon and finds him in the middle of a fight with three members of the Serpent Society (recurring Cap foes). Battlestar's subplot wound up running for a quite some time as he toured the background of Captain America, trying to find Walker. In retrospect, it's odd that Battlestar never went to the star of the book - Captain America - and asked for his help (of course, then the subplot would be over the same issue). Battlestar eventual reunion with the U.S.Agent led in turn to resolving some of Walker's issues which weren't tied up until...#383! Again, my lack of knowledge where Walker was concerned left me befuddled as to the purpose of Battlestar's quest, but it didn't really matter - he teams up with the Falcon (again, I knew Falcon from #293-299) and they fight some bad guys! Easy to follow.

Cap's story wraps up with him wandering right into the clutches of the Sisters of Sin, who are responsible for the missing teens. Sisters of Sin? They were antagonists in Cap#293-299! Full circle! So, the unfamiliar world of Captain America wasn't that unfamiliar after all; it was easy to stay with Captain America after this. As adults, comic book fans only seem to enjoy using continuity to point out the flaws in a writer's story, as though continuity exists to undermine creators. However, as a kid I loved continuity because it heightened the experience of reading fiction to not only comprehend overt references to earlier stories but to identify subversive references to earlier stories. While reading Cap#355, I knew more about the Sisters of Sin than what the text itself told me about them, and that made me feel special. Through continuity, we fans feel we're "in."

Uncanny X-Men#268

X-Men was a cool kid's book in my heyday, so what better reason to avoid it? I wasn't a cool kid. Still, my cousins liked the X-Men and their peer pressure powers were quite overwhelming. I gave in with this issue because I saw Captain America on the cover. I was already developing a fondness for Cap (I heard he had a movie in the works so I thought I'd be preemptively cool by liking him before anyone else; oy), so I justified this as a Captain America purchase.

You want to talk back story? How about subplots? A cast of thousands? Oh boy, that's Chris Claremont's X-Men and those writers who followed him on the series kept up the same intensity of long-running (sometimes abandoned) plots and soap operas. Still, this issue is pretty easy to follow for a novice: Wolverine, Jubilee & Psylocke are the X-Men (the X-Men were broken into 3-4 different casts at the time, so your featured players varied issue-to-issue); they meet Wolverine's old friend the Black Widow while battling some bad guys; this prompts flashbacks to World War II when Wolverine and Captain America saved the young Black Widow from the Hand ninja cult. Oh, and a new group of villains are waiting in the wings. There's so much in these 22 pages!

As a novice X-Men fan, it was easy for me to assume ignorance of all of this; in fact, there's ton of subtle continuity going on in this issue which would be lost on many in today's readership (ie, Ivan Petrovitch appearing). But the subtle touches don't matter - they're there to please Claremont, most likely; they're simply garnishing the story at hand (pun?) and the story itself is simple to follow; larger-than-life characters enjoy larger-than-life adventures and they don't skimp on the snappy banter. I'd found my gateway into the X-Men and, outside of the 2 years I spent not buying comics, some aspect of the X-Men have been in my collecting ever since.

It's strange for me to see this story alluded to now as some sort of "classic." Am I that old? Seriously, there are multiple homages to this cover? Just because Jim Lee drew it, or...? It's the issue of X-Men where Jim Lee drew Captain America; it stood out then, it stands out even now.

Usagi Yojimbo#126

Well, the twenty years between Uncanny X-Men#268 and Usagi Yojimbo#126 are a bit of a blur. I've collected many, many titles since then, but so far as I can recall, in each instance I either began with issue #1, caught up on what I'd missed through trade paperbacks or a friend's collection or I had come aboard with a jumping-on point which was about as good as a #1.

For some time, my friend Texcap had been urging me to read Usagi Yojimbo. I wasn't unfamiliar with Usagi, having read a couple of issues from the 80s, but I was hesitant to start reading it now. Even though Texcap assured me I could begin reading Usagi with any issue, I was reluctant. When I met Usagi's writer/artist/letterer Stan Sakai at a convention, I told him I would wait to start reading Usagi after his earliest stories were collected in the giant-sized (ultimately long-delayed) Special Edition. "Oh," Sakai remarked, "you're one of those."

Why was it so easy for me to jump into the midst of tangled continuity-heavy late 80s super hero books as a young teen, but difficult for the adult me to sample a self-contained series? It was basically fear of the unknown, but why did I think I wouldn't enjoy Usagi Yojimbo unless I began with issue #1? Was it simply an excuse to keep me from trying a comic book? Even if it were a very good comic book? If Usagi were cancelled tomorrow, ending Sakai's 20+ year one-man creative expression, how would I feel about that? Wasn't I already giving chances to plenty of brand-new untested talent at Marvel, DC, Image, etc?

So, I began reading Usagi Yojimbo with #126, which was a done-in-one story. I've read Usagi ever since, even as I've been gathering up all of the Usagi trades and filling myself in on the back story; it's something of a collector's Ouroboros. Texcap and Sakai were both right - it doesn't matter. The series has occasional multi-part stories, but the character relationships are always very clear; you know who's friends with whom; who distrusts whom; whose sworn vengeance against whom.

Since Gruenwald's Captain America and Claremont's X-Men are but relics of the past, my closing recommendation is to suggest if you aren't currently reading Usagi Yojimbo...ask yourself, "why not?"

Thursday, June 2, 2011

One Year Later: Five Years Later

At present, the comic book communities are all a fluster with the announcement that DC Comics is rebooting the DC Universe in September, starting 52 different titles over with new issue #1s. This will be the most recent DC continuity reboot since the previous DC continuity reboot.

Obviously, DC's reboot is an opportunity to court new readers. It's debatable whether they can truly reach beyond the typical comic book shop audience and lure new faces to the hobby, but they can certainly win over a few lapsed DC fans or mostly Marvel fans. The real opportunity to grow their fanbase will be on the internet, since part of this new publishing initiative is to put everything they print on sale digitally the same day as the print copy.

For those of us who already follow DC Comics (and I do, to the extent of Xombi, I suppose), it does prompt one to wonder how September's titles will be markedly different than what DC has been publishing for the past few years (other than a revised continuity). I mean, if I wasn't willing to buy Green Arrow by J.T. Krul before, why would I start buying Green Arrow by J.T. Krul now?

Some fans are wondering if its necessary to dump DC's heavily convoluted back story in order to win over new readers. Wouldn't a simple line-wide jumping-on point be sufficient, never mind jettisoning all which has come before? After all, by the time issue #2 of any title ships, it has officially begun building a back story.

Well, I'm reminded of 2006's One Year Later. Again, I'm not very devoted to DC Comics and I don't interact with DC fandom, but in '06 I went from picking up just the occasional DC Universe limited series to jumping in on four different DC Universe series, all because of One Year Later.

One Year Later followed on the heels of the Infinite Crisis crossover (which I didn't read) and proposed that between shipping months, an entire year had transpired for the stars of the DC Universe. Titles branded "One Year Later" would resume their characters' adventures with (allegedly) new (hopefully) exciting (undoubtedly) different stati quo. New costumes, new faces behind the costumes, new team lineups, yakata, yakata. I don't know if One Year Later was intended to be a "hook" to non-comics readers, but it seemed like a decent hook to the typical non-DC fanatic (so states this non-DC fanatic).

From the few reactions I observed online, I found a lot of upset fans. Rather than winning over new audiences, One Year Later seemed to alienate the core readership. Titles which had been struggling prior to OLY went belly-up in its aftermath and retailers complained about steady titles turning weak.

Five years later, I'm finally ready to share my own observations; journey with me now through the misty veil of history to the time man called...One Year Later.

Blue Beetle#1

Following the death of Ted Kord (the long-running Blue Beetle) just prior to Infinite Crisis, the torch is passed to Jamie Reyes, a Hispanic Texan teenager who accidentally inherits the (supposedly) mystical scarab which inspired Kord to become a crime fighter. Reyes discovers the scarab can fashion a suit of protective armor and generate a wide variety of weapons. The series was the brainchild of John Rogers but for several issues was co-written by Keith Giffen, apparently because Rogers wasn't strong enough on his own (five years later Rogers still doesn't have many credits to his name) and Giffen's connection to Ted Kord would evidently soften the blow over killing Ted Kord (which some fans are still sore about).

I didn't quite like Blue Beetle at the start; I enjoyed the humour, but the early issues delved into the scarab's connections to DC's world of magic, which was just turgid. Once it dropped the mystical angle, the series finally fired on all cylinders.

This amazingly well. I don't think it would be controversial to suggest it was the biggest winner of OYL. Although it was eventually cancelled after 36 issues, it still performed better than Ted Kord's 1980s series (a series which benefited from two line-wide crossovers and Kord's Justice League membership, no less); Reyes is still the Blue Beetle at present (I suppose that may change come September?) and by the time Rogers completed his run with issue #25, the series had become a darling of the internet.


Having lost his powers in Infinite Crisis, Clark Kent has lived a normal life for a year and found it to his liking; however, Lex Luthor is scheming (isn't he always?), so Clark has to get his Superman on again, somehow. This series was co-written by Kurt Busiek & Geoff Johns and the initial story ("Up, Up and Away") crossed over with Action Comics.

Although this series was a collaboration, I couldn't always be sure which parts came from Johns and which from Busiek; both are lifelong fans of the super hero genre who love continuity and back story. That said, when Green Lantern asks Clark to join the Green Lantern Corps...yeah, I was suddenly reminded who one half of the team was.

For me, the highlight of the initial story was how Clark and Lois' relationship was handled, showing mutual respect for both characters and both characters mutual respect to each other. Clark's eventual repowering is also a lot of fun as he starts out back at his 1938 power levels and continues to gain strength. Each chapter of "Up, Up and Away" left me eager to see the next part, so it was certainly doing its job.

Busiek remained with Superman for a little while past this story. Although I wasn't very interested in his running storyarcs, I really enjoyed his done-in-one Superman stories, which reminded me of Busiek's Astro City work. You know, if the Superman series told a great done-in-one story every month, I'd probably buy it a lot more often. Heck, if every DC comic told done-in-one stories, I'd probably be in to buy them every week.


With Hawkman having recently died in...Infinite Crisis? His one-time lover Hawkgirl assumes the lead role and quickly finds herself in an occult mystery.

I was interested in Hawkgirl because Walter Simonson (author of my favourite Thor stories) had been brought in as writer. Joining him as artist was Howard Chaykin, whom I've never really warmed up to, but I was interested to discover in interviews how the two men were studio mates in their early years. I was intrigued to see what their collaboration would be like.

Hawkgirl#50 did not make a fan of me. The titular character only appears in costume during a dream scene, spending the rest as something of a plainclothes detective. Perhaps this was to accommodate Chaykin, who isn't really a super hero artist (but then why place Chaykin on a super hero series?). I also didn't have a good sense of what was at stake - Hawkgirl is solving a mystery, there's something to do with her nightmares, something vaguely occult happening, but I couldn't associate with the setting, characters or mystery. This was my only issue of Hawkgirl, a series which lasted just 17 issues under its new direction.

Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis#40

With Aquaman having...uh...gone away because of...Infinite Crisis? A young man with similar water-breathing powers is the new Aquaman and sets out for a romping fantasy adventure under the sea.

I was sold on this title as soon as I learned Kurt Busiek and Jackson Guice were the creative team. Reading advance interviews, I was very interested in the direction Busiek described as his Aquaman would have gained his powers through experiments as the original 40s Aquaman had (the latter Aquaman having become increasingly mystical). Not having read Aquaman in the past, I was happy to get in on the ground floor of a what would (essentially) be an all-new character.

Unfortunately, I wasn't in on the ground floor. This issue made all sorts of vague references to the earlier Aquaman, but wouldn't explain what had become with him. Also present was King Shark, who I guess was an Aquaman villain? I quickly realized I was missing key information as a neophyte to Aquaman's world. When I checked online reactions to this issue and saw all the talk about how the original Aquaman was really the Dweller in the Depths (the new Aquaman's octopus-faced, seriously), I was aghast; I'd missed the clues entirely due to not being an Aquaman fan. I just...get a little upset at this comic even now. I so wanted to like it, but its land under the sea went over my head (thank you creative writing 101). Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis ran 18 issues.

Over all, I was won over to Blue Beetle and enjoyed a few good Superman stories, so One Year Later was a success to me in that sense; heck, I went from zero DC Universe titles to two. But when I hear how DC's September creative direction will be a great jumping-on point for new readers I still can't help but think, "yeah, Hawkgirl#50 and Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis#40 claimed the same thing." Well, the proof is in the pudding. Meet me back here in September, we'll see if I take the bait. Pudding as bait? Lousy metaphorical cliches...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Comic Books I Have Tried to Read

For most of my years collecting comic books I've been a fan of Marvel Comics. Not only does Marvel account for the majority of my collection, I've been able to justify a few oddball purchases here and there because (I reason) it all gives me a better understanding of Marvel. As a Marvel freelancer, there may yet be a way to justify my owning NFL Superpro, Night Nurse and Druid.

Around 2002 I began to seriously examine comic books outside of Marvel, hoping to broaden my horizons (and palate). While I've developed a lot of new favourite books in the near-decade since then (Usagi Yojimbo, Supernatural Law, Rex Libris), many new books I've tried out never panned out beyond the first issue. These superfluous #1s in my collection are a bit of an embarrassment to me.

Now, often publishers will lower the price of their first issue to draw more readers ($0.25-1.00) and I've bought into this numerous times. As the inexpensive issue #1 has almost never led to becoming a monthly follower, I'm trying to curb such purchases. At any rate, excluding such aforementioned books, here's a sampling of comics whose first issue...was my last issue. I'm not intending to insult any of the proceeding titles, rather I'm delving into my sometimes-flighty reasons for ignoring a comic and (perhaps) illustrating how important it is for a first issue to win over the audience, especially when the audience is new to the characters and their universe. If any of my statements seem ignorant or damning, just imagine the stories I could tell about comics I gave up on while they were still on the rack; further, just imagine how comics like these appear to the novice comic book fan, as opposed to an old die hard like me. As it has been said, every comic book is someone's first...and last.

Human Defense Corps#1 (DC Comics, limited series)

What Is it? Spinning out of a recent line-wide DC crossover (which I hadn't read), the Human Defense Corps were normal foot soldiers being sent up against the many and varied extra-normal threats of the DC Universe.

Why Was It My First Issue? As an old fan of G.I. Joe, I was interested in the concept and eager to see what kind of menaces the Human Defense Corps would have to face.

Why Was It My Last Issue? Unfortunately, the Human Defense Corps' primary antagonists were some sort of mystical characters from the DC Universe and it wasn't really what I was interested in.

Outsiders#1 (DC Comics, ongoing series)

What Is it? Spinning out of a minor crossover (which I hadn't read), the Outsiders were a relaunched team of "proactive" heroes out to get the bad guys. In this issue, Arsenal & Nightwing gather their team.

Why Was It My First Issue? I'd been enjoying writer Judd Winnick's work on Marvel's Exiles and I felt ready to try out a DC Universe super hero team book.

Why Was It My Last Issue? Well, the word "proactive" has never lead to anything worthwhile in the history of fiction (hyperbole?). Given the team's remit some of the members (Jade) didn't seem to belong. I was also really put out by a new character introduced here, Grace, who's shown to be a bouncer at a club frequented by monsters which only prompted me to wonder why, if the Outsiders were out to clean up on crime, they didn't start with Grace's place of business. But I think it was the last page appearance of Gorilla Grodd which convinced me this was just another DC super hero team book.

Wildguard: Casting Call#1 (Image, limited series)

What Is it? With a set-up like a reality TV program, a panel of judges examine dozens of super heroes to see which are worthy to join the Wildguard.

Why Was It My First Issue? The reality TV-like concept caught my notice and I struck by the potential for humour and drama in the concept.

Why Was It My Last Issue? This issue had to juggle introducing dozens of new characters. Todd Nauck was absolutely on his game when it came to designing them, but by the nature of the concept, you couldn't become particularly attached to them. It's still a great concept I'd like to see again.

Villains United#1 (DC Comics, limited series)

What Is it? In preparation for a line-wide crossover (which I didn't read), most of the DC Universe's super-villains have joined forces under the leadership of Lex Luthor and others; however, the members of the Secret Six refuse to join them.

Why Was It My First Issue? The lineup of villains on the cover intrigued me and I was already becoming a fan of writer Gail Simone.

Why Was It My Last Issue? The contents didn't match the cover; when I found out it was actually a Secret Six mini-series I bailed on the project.

Red Menace#1 (DC Comics, limited series)

What Is it? During the McCarthy era "witch hunt," a super hero gives up his secret identity to the government as a show of good faith; it's just the beginning of his problems.

Why Was It My First Issue? I've always been interested in seeing super hero comics tackle McCarthyism, perhaps because in the actual 1950s the super heroes either avoided the issue or played along with the "red menace" rhetoric.

Why Was It My Last Issue? That said, this comic seemed more interested in being a noir drama (perhaps in graphic novel format) rather than being a super hero comic book.

Stormwatch PHD#1 (DC Comics, ongoing series)

What Is it? Set in the Wildstorm Universe, a variety of non-costumed people are recruited to serve in an anti-superhuman crime task force.

Why Was It My First Issue? I had become a great fan of writer Christos N. Gage and had yet to read a Gage comic I didn't like. The concept of non-super heroes combating super crime held some appeal.

Why Was It My Last Issue? This was the first Gage comic I did not like. The series relied on too much prior knowledge of the Wildstorm Universe...which probably has a lot to do with the eventual collapse of Wildstorm. I was completely unprepared for the many references to preexisting characters and past events. I was also put out by the last page, where the team are revealed to have a traitor in their ranks; I wished the series could have at least given me a chance to develop an affinity for the cast before tearing them down. Finally, because this issue was spent introducing the cast one at a time (to give them proper identification to the reader), there was no sense of what the series' actual content would be like.

Justice Society of America#1 (DC Comics, ongoing series)

What Is it? Relaunched after a brief hiatus, this continues the adventures of the DC Universe's first team of super heroes, now mentoring a baker's dozen of proteges.

Why Was It My First Issue? I had followed the predecessor series JSA in the past. I eventually quit reading it, but I felt the new issue #1 was a good chance to see if things had changed.

Why Was It My Last Issue? Nothing had really changed, especially where writer Geoff Johns was concerned. Throughout JSA I had been frustrated by the superficial changes the title was constantly experiencing - new costumes, new codenames, members leaving, members joining, members dying, members resurrecting (kind of a decompressed Axe Cop) - to the point where I found myself wishing the series would just settle down and tell some stories about the Justice Society, rather than the senseless fluctuation of the status quo. In this issue #1, I could see things only growing worse as the already-sprawling cast gained several new members. I decided Johns was more interested in the idea of a Justice Society comic, rather than producing a Justice Society comic.

Lobster Johnson: the Iron Prometheus#1 (Dark Horse, limited series)

What Is it? A 1930s pulp-style hero (set in the same universe as Hellboy) battles occult threats.

Why Was It My First Issue? This is only one of many attempts I've made to become a regular reader of Hellboy; I've been interested in reading Hellboy since I saw the first live action film, yet the comics almost always leave me cold. The attraction here was that I knew Lobster Johnson didn't have much back story already established so I would probably find a fairly approachable story.

Why Was It My Last Issue? Like most Hellboy universe properties, something felt "off" to me. I can't connect to the characters or the world they inhabit, much as I'd like to.

The Next Issue Project#1 (Image, limited series)

What Is it? Creators pay homage to 1940s comics with an issue designed to resemble the hypothetical "next issue" of a long-dead 40s comic book.

Why Was It My First Issue? The concept and larger page size were appealing, as were the names of contributors Bill Sienkiewicz and Jim Rugg.

Why Was It My Last Issue? In retrospect, the presence of Bill Sienkiewicz should have been my first indication of this title's mixed message. Some stories were written and drawn to look like a vintage comic; others were much the same as a 21st century comic, simply employing long-vanished characters; still others broke entirely from the original character concepts to envision them as something else. While I enjoyed a number of the features in this first book, the inconsistent message swayed me into steering clear of the rest.

Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance#1 (DC Comics, limited series)

What Is it? The self-indulgent Super Young Team of Japan are out to make their mark as the DC Universe's greatest long as they don't actually have to make an effort.

Why Was It My First Issue? Although I didn't read Final Crisis I had heard of Super Young Team on various blogs while the event was running and they sounded like a clever concept. Creators Joe Casey and Chriscross were a reliable team, to boot.

Why Was It My Last Issue? I was seriously unprepared for this comic. I didn't expect Casey's story to skewer its cast so immediately and constantly. The Super Young Team spend the first issue talking about how they're the greatest super heroes of all time, but do nothing to prove it. Undermining the cast seemed to be the point of the series, but I couldn't deal with such unlikeable characters. I suppose I thought it would be funnier?

Turf#1 (Image, limited series)

What Is it? In 1920s New York, gangsters, vampires and aliens collide.

Why Was It My First Issue? I had enjoyed Jonathan Ross' TV special In Search of Steve Ditko and was interested to see if he could write comic books.

Why Was It My Last Issue? Well, I learned more about Turf from the solicitation text than I did in issue #1, which is seldom a good sign. To my astonishment, Turf takes a ludicrous concept and plays it straight, delving into the internal politics of vampire clans (which are fascinating to all the Masquerade players, I suppose) and gradually building up a conflict between them and the mob. And there might be an alien wandering through two pages. I came for Grand Guignol and found I'd bought Samuel Beckett.

Hawks of Outremer#1 (Boom!, limited series)

What Is it? Adventures of the Crusader hero Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, from the pen of Robert E. Howard.

Why Was It My First Issue? It was a light week for me at the comic shop and I had some money burning a hole in my pocket. The Crusades trappings caught my eye.

Why Was It My Last Issue? It occurred to me that as I prefer to delve into the original source material when it comes to adaptations that I really ought to read the original Hawks of Outremer by Howard for myself.