I’ve always enjoyed deciphering comics. I like looking at the writers’ styles: how they set up premises in such a short framework, presenting characters and looking for the similarities in other writers’ works. Comparing comics today to their counterparts twenty or thirty years ago is also fun, though I confess to a degree of frustration sometimes as well.
Recently, a friend of mine reminded me about Jim Shooter’s axiom: in that every comic could be a reader’s first time. So characters have to have a miniature introduction, every setting should be well-described, and the reader has to be gently coaxed into wanting to learn more.
The Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars (1984) was a prime example of that technique. In the first issue, the battle lines are drawn and the characters – good and bad – are literally lined up in a panel and introduced en masse. However, to me, Secret Wars was written with two purposes in mind. The first was to help Mattel sell its toy line (I have an article coming up in Back Issue Magazine next month that goes into this in greater detail) and the second, which developed about midway into the series after Mattel abandoned its product line, was to help further develop Shooter’s editorial vision of the Marvel Universe. So this style seemed to be more purpose oriented for Secret Wars rather than philosophical.
This style of writing seems to have disappeared. Contemporary writers seem intent on making an impact with their books and want to shock the reader into reading more or present their stories with a cliffhanger, to lure the reader to continue the story. Jason Aaron’s Southern Bastards or Men of Wrath exemplifies the former while Jonathan Hickman’s East of West presents the latter. All three of these stories are excellent, don’t get me wrong, but they have an element of the visceral as well that makes them stand out. Simply put, they are more graphic than what would be acceptable by 1984 standards.
Of course, I ascribe the 80’s for the growing degree of violence and subject material. That was the decade where it all started. When Marvel began Epic, Illustrated, DC responded with Vertigo Press with both publishers abandoning the Comics Code Authority, the governing body that set the limits of what could be published in North American comic literature. Of course, this was also the age where many independent comic publishers started up as well: Comico, First Comics and Eclipse Comics were examples of companies that started up without the CCA’s approval. All of these publications showed that the CCA was hardly necessary and that there was an audience looking for more gritty and adult-oriented perspectives of super heroes. From there, it all exploded.
The 90’s were hardly a good representation of comic talent, but still there was this appreciation for the darker side of comics. It is interesting to note that the grittier the title, the more it seemed to succeed. Titles like Constantine, Preacher, The League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen and one of my all-time favourites, Planetary all featured in this decade and were sterling examples of some of the most gripping and dark stories in comic-dom. Few of them required any in-depth introduction and a lot of the characters’ back stories were developed as the series continued.
Was Shooter wrong? No, I don’t think so, but I think the darker the story, the less introduction is required. Shooter’s stories were constrained by the limits of the CCA so there had to be a greater or more blatant awareness of the characters and setting was required in order to keep the reader focused on the story or to hook new readers into buying the book. Today, comics are more darker, but they are also more intricate and rely upon dazzling or stunning the reader into a state of acceptance. This can be very exhilarating, but also frustrating if the writer is so focused on the sizzle that he forgets about the steak.
There has to be a balance, essentially. A reader needs to have a solid connection to the characters and their motivations but also wants to be thrilled by these things. That’s why events like Convergence and Secret Wars can be exciting, but frustrating as well. If the balance is not achieved, then these events are reduced down to nothing more than a cheap publishing stunt.
Let’s decipher some books.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency #1
This is a book that shouldn’t require introduction … but because the novel series it was based upon was not as well-known as Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it just might.
Personally speaking, I love this book. I love anything ever written by Douglas Adams and this was a wonderful rendition of the character and the idea of the fundamental inter-connectivity of everything in informing the detective’s practice.
Written by Chris Ryall and penciled by Tony Akins (Inks and Colours by John Livesay and Leonard O’Grady), it’s a true capturing of the loveable and irascible Dirk Gently (aka Svlad Cjelli). However, I don’t know how popular Dirk Gently is anymore, given that the character is over twenty-five years old. It doesn’t have the same status as Star Trek or other older sci-fi titles so I don’t know if it will be successful. I hope it is. The world needs more Douglas Adams in any shape or form and this is a comic that is desperately needed and was a joy to read.
Marvel’s attempt in capturing the hearts and minds of the growing segment of female comic readers. Of course, none of these characters require introduction, but it is a very blatant attempt to remind readers that it has very powerful female characters in its universe. Of course, the problem with this comic is that these characters all have such diverse backgrounds that manufacturing an excuse for them to all assemble under one super-hero team banner is going to be the big challenge in sustaining this book.
Oh wait … right: Battleworld.
Sigh. Of course though, this is the best run Barony in Battleworld. All the heroines are perfect in the execution of their defence of Arcadia Green and everyone wakes up fresh, clean and under the sunshine.
As much as I would have liked this to be successful, the rank commercialism of this title just struck me as I looked at the cover. Also, given the entire premise of Battleworld, I really had a hard time accepting this story at face value. If Doom is Lord and God over all of these lands, then why would you upset the apple cart? It was a difficult story to swallow.
Moon Knight #15
Arguably the best Marvel sole title out there right now.
Cullen Bunn is a master of minimal dialogue. The battle between the Bogeyman and Moon Knight gets Marc Spector into conflict with Khonshu, his sponsoring deity, who I have to say, in this iteration of the Moon Knight series, has been nothing short of a fickle master. But it’s the last panel that really throws you for a loop and shocks you into wanting more next month.
I’m not aware of German Peralta’s other work but in this comic, it was great; very realistic and gritty and the colouring really set the tone. Nice job, Dan Brown. If you’re not following this series, then you need to add this title to your regular pull list. It’s amazing.
Uncanny X-Men #34
Why bother? Well, because I have a problem. Like I said, I’m an X-Whore. I still have this loyalty to my X-Men built up over years of conditioned reading. I guess I keep waiting for the next issue to be THE ONE that makes me realize that they’re still the premiere super-team Marvel has going for them.
I dream a lot.
This issue is the springboard for another New Mutants-like spin-off. It wasn’t bad, though I hated the art and Dazzler’s new look smacks of too much retro-effort. Of course, I’m calling this now: these are the NEW New Mutants and I bet they’re going to be the template for the New Mutants film that Marvel has on the drawing board.
Mark my words, people; I’m calling it here. I’m probably the first one to call it too, so I’m expecting full credit for my speculation.
It makes sense: this is Bendis’s attempt to snag a total movie credit for himself. This will be the New Mutants for the 21st century, pre-packaged and ready to go for modern-day MCU consumption.
Of course, the poignant sentence in this issue is” “why do we have to be the X-Men”? You don’t Chumley – you’re going to be the New Mutants.
Planet Hulk #1
Hmm … too recent for a remake, but with Secret Wars upsetting the apple cart, so to speak, it kinda actually worked.
Actually, it worked so well, I forgot about the Secret Wars anxiety I’ve developed. Sam Humphries does an amazing job of telling this story, though I’m sure Greg Pak might have had a little influence. Marc Laming’s pencil work is astounding and this alternate story of Captain America as a gladiator in Doom’s arena fighting with Devil Dinosaur is just so surprising a concept that it completely sells me. I suppose that is the advantage with resetting all the comic parameters, you can do odd combos like this. Still, for whatever it’s worth, Steve Rogers being sent to the land of the Hulks (Greenland – what else?) as a punishment by Doom is a truly fun concept and definitely worth picking up.
Secret Wars Battleworld #1
And then there is the other side of the proverbial penny. This was, at best, mediocre. While the first story, “Soldier Supreme” offered a passably entertaining story about the combination of Frank Castle possessed by the ghost of Doctor Strange (written by Joshua Williamson), it was the art (Mike Henderson) that disappoints. The back-up story, “M.O.D.O.K. Madness” (Ed Brisson and Scott Hepburn) was barely laughable. Sad to say, this was not the best story to come out of the new and improved Secret Wars.
Star Wars #5
Simply outstanding. Another comic friend of mine also pointed out that John Cassaday’s art is attaining iconic status. You can recognize his work immediately and the calibre is set to become legendary.
Luke returns to Tatooine with Boba Fett in pursuit. What was really cool is that there was a bit of a tip of the hat with a reference from one of Archie Goodwin’s run of Marvel’s first Star Wars in 1980. In one of those stories, Luke’s Tatooine nickname was “Wormie”, and that pops up in this issue. Way to go, Jason Aaron – a fitting tribute to an amazing writer and a true Marvel Comics nobleman. Archie Goodwin was a much beloved member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society and Jason Aaron just showed himself to be a real class act. Nice job there, sir.
It’s done. Stick a fork in it and let it go. The problem is that Convergence came out totally gangbusters in the first two or three issues. Then it totally went off onto a sidetrack with Telos no longer the master viallain and Deimos taking his place. Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Warlord master villain stuff, but I think it might have surprised those readers too young to know who Deimos is.
Let’s face it: Warlord hasn’t really taken anybody by storm since the 1980’s and only the devoted comic fan is going to know who the characters from this iconic Mike Grell comic are. It’s a bit of a surprise and highly irrelevant to this generation of comic readers. Of course, at least it wasn’t Per Degaton, right? Even though that would have been really cool.
I have no idea what Scott Lobell and Jason King are thinking any more. But this isn’t the blank and dumbfounded expectation that something cool is going to happen – no, this is utter confusion. I mean, the main title has to set the framework, but it seems that the action has shifted from the original cadre of heroes in the first issue to this new line-up of characters … it’s too difficult and convoluted to follow.
… and that upsets me. I wanted this to be the missing link, the unified theory of DC Comics that would set all of the Multiversity balanced, with a return to the great and many universes that DC has at its disposal. This is hardly going in that direction. Disappointing, especially since I was so positive about this book in the first and second issues.
Convergence – Batman and the Outsiders #2
Carlos D’Anda’s art really didn’t thrill me. While the storyline was fairly simple: Batman and the Outsiders versus OMAC under the control of Godmother – it was a fight issue. Very little else can be said about it in terms of anything significant, story-wise. Really, nothing all that outstanding here.
Convergence – Justice League of America #2
Fabian Nicieza does a fairly decent representation of this late 80’s, early 90’s version of the JLA in a battle issue, but the Secret Six were too obscure to be decent antagonists in this story. ChrisCross’s art was hardly spectacular and even the fact that (spoiler alert coming up) Zatanna, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter had to be freed by Sue Dibney was just laughable. In short, this was a bit of a disappointment.
Convergence – New Teen Titans #2
Wolfman does a great job of re-capturing some of the original essence of the Teen Titans I remembered. I also like that he was able to insert the interplay between the characters: Nightwing and Starfire’s difference in values, the relationship between Cyborg and Changeling and that Wonder Girl always seemed to be the mature one out of the bunch. I don’t think Kole and Joey really got a chance to shine, but there were only so many pages, right?
Still, it was a forced story and I don’t think that Nicola Scott’s art was up to the task for this issue. Face it – she’s no George Perez, who really should have been partnered up with Wolfman on this gig. It just makes sense: go the whole nine yards.
The comic pick for this week is:
Planet Hulk #1
As I indicated earlier, it’s the shock value that sells these days, and this was one hell of a shock. A gladiator Captain America, partnered with Devil Dinosaur … while kneeling in subservience to Doctor Doom? All highly unlikely but just the right sort of strange combination of weird factors that is enough to make a reader sit up and take notice.
Also, it was an incredibly tight and coherent story with enough little twists and tweaks to make your eyebrows twitch in appreciation for the breadth of creativity. I loved seeing this iteration of Arcade in this book and the surprise guest at the end of the story really lures me into wanting to see more of the story unfold. Out of all the strange stories in the Secret Wars, this one had all the right chemical factors to earn itself a place of distinguishment in my choice of comic pulls for the duration of this publishing event.
If this was the first introduction to the new world of the Secret Wars, then it was one in which you hardly needed a lot of background information on. Yet, if these were characters you knew, then the shock value of seeing them in this new format would be enough to make you wonder what the heck is going on. It meets both of the criteria I was mentioned earlier, so this is definitely should be your first book to read in the new universe that Marvel has created for us.
I still want to know what Jim Shooter thinks about this.