Sunday, September 18, 2011

Some Long-Winded Rambling about Comic Books

Y'know, I really am a massive nerd. Like, ridiculously so.

 I started reading comic books 16 years ago. I had had a decent idea of who Batman and Superman were, and I got a Sonic the Hedgehog comic at one point, but the spark that started the blaze in my mind was my first exposure to Marvel. I remember the day I got my first Marvel comic even now, oddly enough. I had been with my parents as they sold candles and other items at a crafts fair. Afterward, they bought me Spectacular Spider-Man #221, dated February 1995, which featured the death of Doctor Octopus and incredible artwork by Sal Buscema and Bill Sienkiewicz. But that wasn't my FIRST Marvel, in the strictest sense.

It was the previous Christmas. Mom and Dad had bought me a board game the likes of which I had never seen before, called "Marvel Super Heroes." Now, even though I knew what a super hero was, I had no idea what "Marvel" meant. Honestly, I'm still not a fan of the word, and it rubbed me the wrong way then. What a pretentious word, to tout one's product as being "Marvelous," or a "Marvel!" In my head, I always hear the word spoken in a snooty, Cruella De Vil kind of voice, but nevertheless, I knew immediately that there was something special about these super heroes.

Let's look at this from a 6-year-old's eyes (and in many ways, my views have not changed): Superman was as open and earnest and friendly as anyone or anything I had ever seen, but Spider-Man wore a full mask and bore the likeness of my least-favorite creepy-crawly--that latter detail alone was enough to intrigue me! Batman was dark and brooding, and he had those wicked wrist blades . . . but Wolverine? That guy had freaking STEAK KNIVES coming out of his fists, and didn't care if his suit was all shredded up. And let's face it, Lex Luthor just looks like a chrome-domed poseur when compared to a diabolical mastermind like Doctor Doom, and the Joker's smile was about as creepy as Captain Kangaroo's when compared to Venom's choppers.
I like to draw. I like X-Men. "X-Men" is the property of 
Marvel. I drew this for fun. Please don't copy, and Marvel,
please don't sue. Thanks!
My appetite for four-colored adventures swiftly became voracious, and I quickly began amassing a collection. Mom picked up a four-pack of #1's, including X-Men, Cage, Spider-Man 2099 and, to my shame, NFL SuperPro (unfortunately, only one, Spider-Man 2099, is still even remotely intact). Once I started reading X-Men . . . well, it was "Game Over." I'd never seen ANYTHING like that before. I had no idea what an "X-Man" was, either, but whatever it was, I sure liked it. Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Rogue and Professor X I knew from the board game, as well as the uber-menacing Magneto, but characters like Psylocke, Jean Grey and Gambit were new to me (I never did understand why Jean didn't have a codename; I had no idea it was the result of prior psychological trauma--or editorial laziness, one or the other). The X-Men became my all-around favorites for over ten years, and Uncanny X-Men is still one of the select few comics I keep on reserve at The Book Nook in West Plains for when I occasionally roll back into town, along with Captain America and Deadpool.

When I was around 7 or 8, my mom bought me a bag of old DC comics from the 1970s. OH, how I wish they were still fully intact! Anyway, these old-school mags consisted of two issues of Action Comics, one issue of Superman, two issues of All-Star Comics (starring the Justice Society. I knew about the Justice League, but the Justice SOCIETY was a foreign concept. Surprisingly, the old-fashioned JSA became my favorite lineup of DC characters, far overshadowing the more "contemporary" League, but I digress) and a really old Charlton comic called Midnight Tales. Now, I was not then nor am I now a big Superman fan, but there was something about those classic Cary Bates/Elliott S! Maggin written, Curt Swan drawn, covers by Nick Cardy and Neal Adams comics that really struck my fancy. That was an era of Superman comics I could enjoy--sure, they were cheesy, and more often than not he was just fighting common criminals, but sometimes . . .

After Nick Cardy, 1975. Superman and Green Lantern are the property
of DC Comics, and my art is purely for fun (although if, for some reas-
on, my work strikes the fancy of an industry professional, I will gladly 
offer my services and skills, limited though they may be.)
This leads into the greatest discovery of all. One of the issues of Action Comics, from 1975, was entitled, "Beware the Hero Killers!", and on the cover was Green Lantern lying dead with an irate policeman holding up GL's limp arm and pointing an accusing finger at a perplexed and frightened Superman, shouting, "You killed him! You murdered Green Lantern!" I didn't know anything about Green Lantern then, save that the folk rock singer Donovan claimed to have abilities that far surpassed both his and Superman's (in the truly odd '60s gem "Sunshine Superman"). It was a pretty epic yarn, wherein a shadowy figure hires two rock-like aliens of universal renown to off Earth's mightiest super hero. They take on human form and attack Superman, but it turns out that he is not their target: Green Lantern is, and they're using Superman to get at him. The shadowy figure turns out to be the evil mastermind Sinestro, and when he comes to collect GL's body, it turns out Supes was wise to the scheme and helped GL fake his death. GL takes out Sinestro and drops him off on Oa, and the issue ends on a jolly note. I was completely blown away, and as such, I started seeking out more adventures of this Green Lantern fella (off-subject, I recently drew an inverted rendition of the classic cover by Nick Cardy. Granted, it will look better in color, and my art still needs a LOT of work, but it was fun to take a stab at a personal favorite). Oh, and there was also a bonus feature by Mike Grell starring Green Arrow and Black Canary. GA's facial hair was truly unsettling, but the story was fun.

Same old deal. I like drawing Green Lantern.
I'm not making any money off this. You don't
copy, I don't get sued, we're all happy. 
Anyway, I became a hardcore Green Lantern fan from that day onward. Of course, due to the comics I had at the time, I was confused by the fact that there was this Green Lantern in the Superman comic and then a blond-haired, red-shirted Green Lantern in the Justice Society, and then there was this Guy Gardner guy (no pun intended) running around with the Justice League International. Needless to say, that took a LOOOOOONG time to straighten out, but now I love them all. However, part of the problem of starting off with old comics is that it leaves you ill-prepared for the shock-and-awe stories that predominated the '90s. I completely missed out on "Emerald Twilight" (I think it would have traumatized me anyway), and I had no idea that beloved classic GL Hal Jordan had gone nuts and been replaced by newcomer Kyle Rayner until I saw Rayner's likeness on a box of DC-themed macaroni and cheese. How sad is that? Not the best way for news about your favorite comic book character to be broken to you, let me tell ya. I immediately began amassing comic book knowledge, trying to figure out who this Rayner guy was and what happened to Hal Jordan . . . and I was not a happy camper when I found out. Making matters worse was when I learned DC had killed him off, and THEN, adding insult to injury, brought him back as the ghostly spirit of vengeance known as The Spectre. The poor guy could apparently have no dignity, in life, death, or anything beyond. I sullenly returned to my X-Men and Spider-Man comics, knowing that they would never disappoint me as Green Lantern had.

Flash forward a few years. Thanks to a truly clever writer named Geoff Johns (who completely screwed up some aspects of JSA but nevertheless saved them from certain death-by-obscurity), Hal Jordan was back in the saddle as Green Lantern. On Amazing Spider-Man, J. Michael Straczynski was doing no wrong, even with controversial storylines such as the Green Goblin fathering Gwen Stacy's children (horrifying, yes, but well written). On Astonishing X-Men, Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly, etc) was masterfully crafting the best run the franchise had seen in years. In Captain America, classic teen sidekick Bucky was very skillfully resurrected by writer Ed Brubaker, leading to some of the most entertaining stories I'd ever read (Bucky even kicked the crap out of Wolverine . . . in the Canucklehead's own comic, to boot!). Man, I didn't think anything could derail my love of comics!
Disaster struck. "And they shall call it . . . 'BRAND NEW DAY.'" "Brand New Day" was the follow-up to a well-written but horribly-ended story called "One More Day," which, like most terrible stories that screw up everything the fans have come to enjoy, was mandated by the powers that be at Marvel. In a nutshell, Spider-Man makes a deal with the devil to save his critically-injured Aunt May's life. What's the price? His marriage to Mary Jane Watson, red-headed supermodel extraordinaire, will be done away with. Like, literally never happened. Like, the devil healed Aunt May in return for erasing Peter and MJ's marriage from continuity. Seriously, kids, I don't know what (Marvel Editor in Chief) Joe Quesada was thinking (or smoking. Or huffing. Or drinking. Or injecting). That was a laaaaame way to try to "fix" a character who didn't need fixing. By letting Peter Parker grow up a little bit, it made him more relatable as a character. Turning him back into a free-swinger (man-ho, to be quite blunt; Peter was portrayed as sleeping with at least three different women within a year of this storyline, as if purposely slapping longtime readers in the face) who can't hold down a steady job was cheap. 
It didn't stop there. The editors at Marvel decided to completely screw around with the character's status quo. First off, long-deceased character Harry Osborn (the second Green Goblin) was "revealed" to have 
been living overseas all along whilst in drug rehab. He's divorced and dimwitted and the perfect "buddy" figure for his equally untethered buddy Pete-O. As for longtime ne'er-do-well (re: buttmonkey) character Flash Thompson, I guess they felt it would be fun for his life to take another swish around the bowl, too. He went to Iraq and got his legs blown off . . . great. That's . . . real thrilling, people. Real original. The only good thing to come out of that story is that he's now the new Venom . . . which is intriguing. Also, perennial super-baddie Doctor Octopus, who had recently metamorphosed from a tubby nerd to a powerfully-built, menacing figure in a trench coat . . . was again changed into a bald, atrophied invalid on a respirator, because for some reason, the trench coat look from the movie just wasn't cool enough . . . *sigh*  Classic villain Hammerhead became a cyborg, the original Venom became a white-clad lummox named ANTI-Venom (although, admittedly, Zeb Wells wrote a great three-issue limited series that made me like him a great deal), the NEW Venom became the Scorpion again . . . ehh. Because of these sweeping changes, I cannot bring myself to buy Spider-Man comics anymore. "Brand New Day" killed Spider-Man for me, and even though it brought a lot of new readers on board, it cost Marvel a LOT of dedicated Spider-fans. Not everything about the run has been awful, though. Zombie-Kraven the Hunter is a neat touch, as is 3rd-rate Green Goblin Phil Urich killing 3rd-rate Hobgoblin Roderick Kingsley and taking his costume for himself (I always hated how they resolved the Hobgoblin's identity mystery, and I'm glad Kingsley got taken out of the equation permanently). Still, I'm really wary of reboots, as they have a tendency to be just plain awful (remember Byrne's "Man of Steel?" I wish I didn't!).

Anyway, this ultimately leads up to "The New 52," which is DC's latest attempt at tying up old continuity and giving readers a fresh take on classic characters (completely ignoring the "if it ain't broke" axiom along with the fact that most of the characters they're rebooting have been rebooted plenty of times already, such as Supes, who's had a "Birthright," an "Infinite Crisis" and a "Secret Origin," none of which could quite nail his backstory quite right). I'm getting a little sick of world-altering crises, and even though this one at least has a reasonable explanation in the storyline "Flashpoint" I'm still not entirely sold. There are the familiar marriage screw-ups (i.e. Superman and the Flash are now bachelors, and even though the Flash supposedly remembers his old life, he's still dating someone else . . . ugh), the backstory screw-ups (so long, Ma and Pa Kent! We hardly knew ye!) and the WHAT THE HECK (Joker getting his face cut off)?!! Also, Superman loses the briefs, Wonder Woman regains hers, and everyone is now sporting a V-neck collar thanks to Jim Lee (I love the man's work, but seriously, why?!). 

For me, though, the worst thing about "The New 52" is that the classic, '40s-era characters, the Justice Society of America, who had ushered in the Golden Age of comic books and had experienced a huge resurgence in popularity thanks to Geoff Johns, were being swept out of the primary continuity of "The New 52" (the 52 new and/or rebooted comics that would herald the awesome power of retroactive continuity in action). Granted, DC has expressed interest in doing a "parallel earth" JSA series that would allow the team to do its own thing without being bound to the primary canon, much as the JSA existed in earlier comics. However, I still see it as cheap. The JSA as a concept deserves better than to be treated as a lesser group, and I think booting them out of the main story is a bad idea. Oh, sure, I'll read the new "Earth-2"-based comic just to give it a shot, and I hope it's excellent (I'm iffy on James Robinson, though; he's been flaky since Starman ended). In fact, I kinda hope it's the best of the batch, just so DC will remember that the JSA means MONEY--MY money, and the money of a lot of other people who love the old-fashioned heroes. I'm going to give "The New 52" a shot (Justice League and Green Lantern are waiting for me at my local bookstore back home, and I can't wait to take a gander), but honestly, I'm not too keen on it. I doubt the cosmetic changes will last particularly long (you don't redesign Superman, kiddies), and unless I'm sorely mistaken, I don't foresee some of the continuity changes sticking, either (although, granted, "Brand New Day" is going strong. I don't get it . . . I really don't).

What comics am I looking forward to most right now? 

First off, Green Lantern (DC). Johns writing, Doug Mahnke penciling--that's all I need. Throw in Sinestro as the lead character with Hal Jordan readjusting to life as a civilian and I'm there for the long haul. I know it's going to end with Hal getting the ring back, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but it's not about how long it takes you get there; it's how memorable the ride is.
Uncanny X-Men, the relaunch (Marvel). Thanks to the events of "X-Men: Schism," the X-Men are having some ideological disputes, with some following Cyclops and some following Wolverine, with a big battle between the two for good measure. I pick the same winner for the fight as I do for the better comic: Cyclops, thus I will be reading Uncanny instead of Wolverine and the X-Men. Cyclops is just a more fascinating, more powerful and more responsible character, and I'm eager to see where his story goes next. Little unsure about Colossus as the new Juggernaut, though, as he looks a little silly . . . *sigh* can't win 'em all.
Captain America and Bucky (Marvel). This one has been great so far, even though it's just been flashbacks with the "deceased" Bucky doing voice-over. Now, they left his story hanging in the main Captain America book, so I'm betting the Bucky who died in "Fear Itself" was just a Life Model Decoy. No way they'd go through the trouble of bringing the poor kid back just to kill him again.
Deadpool (Marvel). It's always stupid but it's also always fun. The pirate storyline was the best, though, second only to the one where Domino falls into a mountain of pancakes. Some stories, like the one where he goes into space and marries a hippopotamus-like alien, dragged on a little too far, though.
Justice League (DC). So I'm not too keen on the new continuity or the V-neck costumes. So what? Jim Lee's on a monthly book again! He's my favorite artist! Of course I'm gonna read it.

Aquaman (DC). Hold your horses, I know Aquaman is the absolute lamest character in the DC roster (second only, perhaps, to perennial Bat-baddy Maxie Zeus). Even the Prankster had more lasting appeal than this dunce, who doggy-paddled his way to the rescue with all manner of marine life in tow while wearing a skintight, salmon-colored shirt and green tights. I'm sorry, but even Marvel's Sub-Mariner, who wore a green Speedo and a belt with a seashell buckle, and had some seriously goofy little wings on his feet, had more dignity than Aquaman (first and foremost, he was ripped. Second, he had actual powers, whereas Aquaman . . . talked to fish). And Aquaman got even goofier in the '90s, when in an attempt to shake things up and make him a little bit grimmer and grittier, a story was written in which he got his hand chewed off by piranhas and replaced it with a harpoon. Riiiiiiiiight. So why am I excited about Aquaman now? Two words: Brightest Day. DC's 24-issue anthology of characters returned after the events of Blackest Night did more justice to Aquaman than anybody could have expected. While Hawkman and Hawkgirl's story felt more like filler than anything else, and Osiris and Maxwell Lord were scarcely mentioned in the main story, Aquaman, J'onn J'onnz, Firestorm and Deadman owned that book. Aquaman's supporting cast was quickly introduced and established, including his wife Mera, her "evil sister" Siren, his new sidekick Aqualad 2.0, and of course, his deadliest and most infamous foe, Black Manta (who is actually the new Aqualad's father). Plus, if nothing else, the scene where Aquaman accidentally summoned an undead shark was pretty epic. Anyway, Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis were able to revitalize--no, scratch that, you can't revitalize something that was never lively. No, what they did was breathe life for the very first time into a very stale character, and since they're handling the creative chores on Aquaman's new series, I'm curious to see if they can maintain the level of epic they had in Brightest Day.
Detective Comics (DC). Okay, I'm sold. Batman interests me again. Tony Daniel is excellent as a writer and an artist, although I don't know why they redesigned Bats' suit again, though . . . they just did for "Batman Incorporated."
Avengers: X-Sanction (Marvel). Not gonna lie, this one really has me stoked. Cable is coming back, thanks to the team of Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness, and he's going after the Avengers. I feel that the character of Cable has been horribly misused ever since the "Dream's End" story from ten years ago (and I don't know what the heck Soldier X was supposed to be), and even though "Messiah Complex" was interesting in concept, Cable still didn't get the treatment he deserved . . . he just got older and took on more scars. He's got a lot of potential to be a great character, and I'm excited to see, first, how Marvel will explain his survival of "X-Men: Second Coming" and also what's motivating him to attack the Avengers (probably some futuristic "you're going to destroy the world, hurt my daughter, allow some atrocity to occur, date my daughter" kind of thing, ala Terminator). Loeb's writing has been mediocre since his run on Batman with Jim Lee, but this may be just what the doctor ordered. I'm excited.

Books I'm going to ignore:

Fear Itself (Marvel). It looked good. But now that I've read up on it, I have no interest in actually reading it. It's another example of a forced "big event" book that's a last-ditch attempt to drum up money. There are too many tie-in books, too many uninteresting elements and simply too plodding a pace. The death of Bucky was a bad move, as well, as it reeks heavily of "editorial mandate," but I'm pretty sure it's just a cover-up for future black-ops adventures, so I'll suspend judgement for now.
Green Arrow (DC). If it were a prequel, I'd read it. It's Oliver Queen as a high-tech hero with a bow, with stubbly facial hair instead of the "fancy lad" Van Dyke he's run around with for almost 50 years. I'd enjoy it greatly if this were him starting out on his path to becoming the braying liberal by day, street-level vigilante by night hero we know and love him as, but it looks like this is GA's new status quo, replete with a brand new supporting cast of unknowns. *Sigh* Green Arrow just hasn't been fun since Brad Meltzer left (and Judd Winick just ran him into the ground). 
Justice League International (DC). I picked up #1, and I was disappointed. Dan Jurgens is a talented guy. But he can't write funny. JLI is supposed to be funny. There are humorous aspects, but they're mostly confined to characters bickering with each other . . . which we've already seen in the original run. Also, it's a little weird seeing Booster Gold as leader, and more importantly, Guy Gardner as the seasoned veteran of the crew, taking on an almost Wolverine-like role whereas in the old series he was just the jerk of the group. I enjoyed Batman's involvement, but without a massive shift in direction, this one's getting cancelled. Aaron Lopresti's art is solid, by the way, but Booster looks ridiculous. Time to bring back the old costume, kids! 
The Amazing Spider-Man (Marvel). Sorry, but while the foul stench of "Brand New Day" still lingers, I will not touch it. "Spider-Island" does look pretty good, though . . . if you can handle its links to "The Clone Saga" (which I actually didn't hate . . . that much). It's all leading up to "Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: The End of the Earth" (or something like that), which will hopefully resolve Ock's problems. If so, I might give Spidey another chance. If not, then I guess I'm done with Spider-Man for the long haul.
Wolverine and the X-Men (Marvel). The show was odd enough. I'm not interested in the comic of the same name, Chris Bachalo notwithstanding. I'm not really crazy about Jason Aaron's writing, and frankly, I feel like this is the book that's getting Marvel's primary backing. It's just like the brand-wide "Civil War" that split the Marvel Universe down the middle, but instead of giving us two well-developed sides to a reasonable argument, it said, "Okay, kids, Iron Man's an evil G-man now! Sic 'im, Cap!" (on that note, I think it was a VERY bad idea to position Iron Man as an antagonist in the same year his movie came out. Kids who wanted to read Iron Man after seeing the movie were very shocked and dismayed, I'm sure) Anyway, this is exactly what I fear will happen with "Schism." It seems like Marvel is very purposely putting the "cool kids" with Wolverine and the "old fuddy-duddies" with Cyclops, stacking the deck against the original X-Man. Well . . . I honestly think Uncanny is going to be better, and I hope I'm not wrong. Kieron Gillen has already proven himself as a solid writer, and I'm excited to see where this story goes. Wolverine . . . has grown boring. 
Wonder Woman (DC). No. Just . . . no. 

That's all for now, I suppose. I will work on making my thoughts more concise, less scatterbrained, etc., from this point on. :)

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