DC Comics
 

On Comic-ish Tragedies

Death-of-SupermanIt’s 1992, and Superman is dead. I’m in my local comic shop, and I see the issue on the racks. Superman #75, with its iconic cover featuring a tattered red cape hanging from a pole, like a weird flag of death. Next to it sat the black-bagged special edition, with its black armband, obituary, and collectible card. It was quite the sight to see for a young comic book fan, and one that sticks with me even now. Of course, now-a-days, Cynical Comic Book Fan Chris looks at death in comics and says, “Ha! Death! That’s a good one! Tell me again about how this character or that character has died!” But, back then…

As adult fans, our cynicism is well-founded. For years, there was a saying in comics that the only comic book deaths that would stick were Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben. Considering that even out of this short list, two of the three characters have returned, it’s easy to see why we don’t put much stock in major comic book deaths. You can tell me all you want about how Jean Grey is really dead this time, but we all know that when sales start lagging, and you need an event to really spice things up, her coffin will be conspicuously empty. (Note: This cynicism in no way applies to the recent death of Wolverine. I’m sure he’s really dead this time.) Continue reading

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Digital Comics: Revisiting the "Future"

first-internetI love digital comics. Anyone who knows me knows that’s no secret. Truthfully, I am the perfect customer for digital comics. Unlike my partner-in-crime, I am not a comic book collector. I don’t buy comics and bag them and store them in boxes, in dark closets, never to read again. I don’t keep a spreadsheet of issues I own, cross-referenced by title, characters, and creators. I don’t have a pull list, and I don’t anxiously await Wednesdays. I read comics solely for the stories, and when I’m done with the stories, the comics often go into a stack in my closet, where I sometimes pull them out again months down the road and reread them, gaining new perspectives on the stories within. While I have great memories of brick and mortar stores, right now, in my life, at the moment, I am a horrible comic shop customer.

But, digital comics. Digital comics are made for me. They always have been. Four years ago, I wrote an entire essay on a different site arguing in favor of what I perceived to be the future of comic books: digital comics. In that piece, I wrote about the access that digital comics could offer, and the potential for savings for the consumer. I painted digital comics as a perfect utopia, the wonderful and glorious future we are destined for. You can read the whole piece over here. I’m not super pleased with it. I was young and shortsighted and not very good. Continue reading

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Revisiting Sandman #3

sandman1This installment is part of an ongoing series in which Christopher re-reads and analyzes one of the greatest comic book series of this or any age. Truth be told, he thinks way too hard about this series, but it’s okay: he knows that other people think way too hard about this series as well. He likes to justify his thoughts by telling himself that he is writing this series for those people.

When last we left Morpheus, king of dreams, he had just recovered the three artifacts of his power: his mask, his pouch, and his dream crystal. With the destruction of the crystal at the hands of Dr. Destiny, Morpheus’s power returns to him in full, making him more powerful than he has been in centuries. What follows is a single issue that is most likely the most important issue in the first volume, and possibly the most important issue in the entire series.

When “Sound of Her Wings” opens, Morpheus is sitting and moping and feeding pigeons. After completing his revenge on his captors and retrieving his belongings, he is listless and unmotivated, unsure of what to do next. Enter his big sister, Death, who offers him the opportunity to accompany her on her work that day and talk. Within 22 pages, which ultimately feel way too short, we are transported around the world, as Dream watches Death guide people into the afterlife. While this is happening, Death guides Morpheus and gives him direction, ultimately creating a beautiful sibling interaction that is remarkably sweet, considering the two characters are eternal representations of metaphysical concepts.

This issue is notable for a number of reasons. In the afterward of Preludes and NocturnesNeil Gaiman calls this issue an epilogue to the preceding stories, and in this sense, it’s very true. The first seven issues of the collection are a self-contained story documenting Morpheus’s imprisonment, escape, and recovery. Once this is complete, we the readers are left as unsure of the future as Morpheus is. While Gaiman could have just jumped through time to start a new story in the following issue, he instead chooses to slow down the pacing and explore what makes Morpheus tick.

Additionally, this issue is important because of its introduction of Death, who would go on to be a major fan favorite. Morpheus’s big sister is everything he is not, and that is wonderful. Where Morpheus is dark, brooding, and morose, Death is happy, perky, and energetic. This first appearance shows Death smiling and talking about Mary Poppins, and I don’t know about you, but in all my musings and thoughts on death, this persona is most unlike anything I’ve imagined. This juxtaposition is especially striking, considering that Death’s job is to literally guide people through their deaths. It makes sense within the context of the story, I guess. As Morpheus says, “It is as natural to die as it is to be born.” It is humanity that cowers in fear of death, when really, it’s just one more phase of life. In this sense, Death’s appearance and demeanor fits very well.

As to why people glommed onto her as a character, I think that some of that has to do with her reactions to those around her. We see her being stern and disapproving, when she first talks to Morpheus, to cool and comforting a few pages later, when an infant asks, “is that all I get?” While Morpheus is the king of Dreams, and the main character of entire series, it is Death that provides the pathos within these pages, and it is that pathos that engages us as the readers.

Or, maybe, she just gives people hope. Maybe, when we die, we’re greeted by a goth girl wearing an Ankh around her neck, who guides us to the afterlife amid the sound of her wings.

Gaiman calls this issue an epilogue, and it certainly serves that purpose. It caps off the previous stories, providing some much needed closure and bridging a gap to the storyline that follows. Additionally, though, it bridges an even wider gap, between who Morpheus was, and who he becomes in the rest of the series. It’s a single, self-contained issue that, as I said earlier, feels way too short, but it’s an issue that everyone should read. Even more so, it’s an issue that would be a great introduction to the series for someone who has never read any other issues.

This concludes our revisit of Preludes and Nocturnes, the first volume of Sandman. Overall, this is a terrific opening to a terrific series, and Gaiman does a fantastic job of drawing us into the world and making us want to stay. In the next installment, I’ll head into the second volume, The Doll’s House, which finds Dream continuing to rebuild his realm.

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Quarterbin Follies #13: Holy Origin Stories!

Year3-1It was Christmas 1992, and there were only two things I wanted for Christmas: DC Talk’s latest album “Free at Last” and Batman Year 3. I am not going to take the time to discuss or defend my adolescent love of the Virginia-founded Christian rap trio, but I will take the time to discuss Batman Year 3. I just ask for a few moments to build up to it.

This story has two beginnings. One starts with the Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which the history of the DC Universe was re-written. Week by week, month by month, the DCU was changed and tweaked in ways big and small. For Superman and Wonder Woman, virtually everything before the Maxi-Series was thrown out in favor of fresh starts. For some characters, like the Green Lanterns and the Flashes, things remained largely untouched. And then there was Batman.

Post-crisis, like the four other heroes in constant publication since the Golden Age (Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman), there was no longer a Batman in the 1940s or beyond. Instead, Batman’s origin was revamped and condensed to a ten-year time frame in Frank Miller’s four-issue story arc, Batman: Year One. It gave the whole of Batman’s origin and world the same kind of grit that Denny O’Neil introduced in the 1970s. Year One, which many folk consider a masterwork, ran in Batman 404-407, which was followed on the heels by Max Alan Collins’s re-imagining of the second Robin, Jason Todd (issues 408-411).

This “new” Jason had a hard edge that Bruce tried to soften and hone for justice, to give Jason a reason to be. Despite this noble goal, Jason just never caught on, and by issue 429, he was dead, the deed done in “A Death in the Family.” But, I am a bit ahead of myself.

The wild success of Year One lead to Year Two, and with the loss of Jason Todd, a new Robin seemed in order. DC needed new blood. They needed a Robin connected to Dick Grayson. They needed one uniquely gifted. They needed one with his own story to tell. And they gave the job to the guy who, at the time, was the undisputed expert on all things Grayson: Marv Wolfman.

Wolfman, the writer of the popular New Teen Titans, had been the primary scribe of Dick Grayson since 1980, overseeing Dick’s growth from Robin to Nightwing. And so, he was a natural choice to create and introduce Tim Drake, who would become the third Robin. This introduction took place in the two-story tour-de-force that was Batman Year 3 and A Lonely Place of Dying.

Year3-2While Year 3 took the time to retell the beginnings of Robin, the boy wonder, it was Lonely Place that really dug into the question of why Batman needed a ‘Robin’ at all?

Spinning far and away from the DC Universe, and into the flesh and blood of our reality–turning to the not-forgotten hours of my own youth, we can now see the second beginning to my story.

I began reading super hero comics in the winter of 1990, and that next February I found (in the very same magazine rack, in the very same CO-OP grocer’s in my High Plains Nebraska town where I still buy comics today) Robin, Vol. 1, Issue #2. This miniseries showcased Tim Drake’s education abroad, and man, I was hooked. Here was a Robin, a nerd just like me, if a little cooler (because Rhys from 1991 thought Tim’s hair was THE coolest).

That next summer saw my first real trips to real comic shops in Rapid City and Denver, and I spent every spare dollar I had – and a few I didn’t – on fleshing out my Tim Drake collection. A part of that was several volumes of the loose-leaf “Who’s Who in the DC Universe.” Between those pages and the letter columns, I ferreted out the title of A Lonely Place of Dying, and there I decided to add that story to my list. I got a copy of the trade that next winter.

It was in reading Lonely Place that I learned of Year 3, but as it had never been collected in trade, all I could find at the shops was this issue or that. It was discouraging. But fast forward yet another winter.

That year, 1992, there opened–for the duration of the holiday season–a fly-by-night comic shop. With Batman Returns in the theatre, and shops all over these United States selling die-cut-prism-pog-folding covers like they were hot cakes, one of the Rapid City shops opened a satellite store in my sleepy little hamlet. It was like Christmas every weekend, except that I didn’t actually get to open those packages. Well, one particular day of wandering and gaping, what did I spy? A gift package of all four issues of Year 3. Hot dog!

Year3-3I wasted no time in informing my mother of the two things I wanted: the aforementioned CD, and Year 3. What else could a nerd like me possibly want? The first appearance of one of my favorite characters! And, imagine my elation to find a garment box under the tree two weeks before that big day – a box that weighed just as much as four comics!

I have always imagined myself like something of a detective, even as a young child, and so I set out to study this pied parcel. I weighed it, measured it, and used a whistling toy to listen through the box. I timed the time it took the contents to slide loose across the inside of the box. I was certain I knew what it was, and I wasted NO time or opportunity in announcing I had figured out its secrets.

And so, it was that Christmas morning, I sat on the floor, surrounded by my family and Gran. I had the opportunity to open any gift I wanted, and I chose the garment box I had spent so much time with. I made a grandstanding announcement about the contents, thanked my parents for their purchase, and opened the paper-and-box to find: a CD taped to a comic-sized piece of cardboard.

I was crestfallen and embarrassed and confused, and the rest of that Christmas I remember as through fog. The last package I opened was the comics, and my mother and sister copped to having-me-on as retaliation for the pompous know-it-all I had been. Yeah, I had that coming.

So, I spent Christmas break reading and re-reading Batman: Year 3, so let’s get on with it.

Year3-4As previously mentioned, this storyline revisits the period of Batman’s mythos, in which he took Dick Grayson under his wings, to become his partner in crime-fighting. In the story, Bruce and Dick are on the outs, and Bruce is pulling away, reeling from the loss of Jason – poor exploded Jason. Meanwhile, we follow Alfred as he testifies at the parole hearing for Tony “Boss” Zucco, the mafioso who gave the order to kill the Graysons to send a message. This is all pretty straight-forward from the Golden Age origin of Robin, but Wolfman did make one notable change: “Boss” Zucco didn’t become boss from years of faithful service. He was no old man, but rather, a fairly young fellow with a record of where the bodies are buried.

Despite Alfred’s best efforts, Zucco is about to walk, and Batman and Nightwing have to hold back a gang war as rival families try to find Zucco’s journal. Interspersed in all of this are memories of Dick’s childhood, his relationship with Bruce, and his super hero career. It is a real primer for Dick Grayson, and one that leads right into A Lonely Place of Dying.

Having read Lonely first, there were a few spoilers for Year 3, so the story wasn’t quite as fresh as it could have been. Also, if I recall correctly, the art of Year 3 was not as crisp. I mean, penciller Pat Broderick has some chops, but when you hold it up to George Perez, who split art duties on Lonely with the famed Jim Aparo and did the covers for Year 3, well, there is almost no comparison. Never the less, this is a great little series, and it is a bummer that it has never been collected as a trade paperback.

Well, I hope you all enjoyed this little hodge-podge of memories, and behalf of all of us at Ideal Comics, Merry ‘old’ Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Year3-5

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Quarterbin Follies #12: A Christmas Special

DC-HolidayYesterday, if you read it, I reviewed the first four issues of Generation X, Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo’s cultural superhero opus. The fourth issue – and the last before the ‘Age of Apocalypse’ event – was Christmas themed, but not a very good Christmas story. Well, last week, when Chris announced on Facebook that we IC folk were taking a pre-Christmas Vacation, he promised some seasonal fun for this week-of. After writing that review, it just didn’t feel “Christmas” enough, especially for someone who has been muttering “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Good King Wenceslas” for two weeks.

Fear not, beleaguered holiday travelers of the information super highway. My rediscovered pile-o’-comics offers a Christmas respite for each of us. And so, to steal some lines from Dylan Thomas, I plunge my hands into the snow, and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into those warm stacks of slowly moldering papers and Holiday memories that rest in arm chairs next to space heaters and wood burning stoves, and out comes the DC Universe Holiday Bash II.

It was in the late 1990s, in the few years before the turning of the century and millennium, and in Western Nebraska, a younger, less hairy Rhys was trying to learn how to deal with this thing called adulthood. I had left college and left the big city – where my parents both lived – and struck out on my own. Anyone who knows anything about that awkward time of life will surely attest that the number one enemy is loneliness. Well, I got by with a little help from my friends at DC Comics. And for three years – 1997, 1998, and 1999 – DC released the annual Holiday Bash, filled with seasonal stories of humor, hope, and heart. And, for me, it was a salve, a refuge. Oh, for a universe that embraced such hope.

For today, I have decided to dive into the 1998 special, which clocks in at 52 pages, plus a front and back “fun page” for making your own paper Bat-ornaments and Superman glider. The entire book offers eight stories within those pages, featuring work by Chuck Dixon, Tony Isabella, Devin Grayson, Ty Templeton, Brian Stelfreeze, and even Howard Chaykin! The stories bend between longer tales like the ten-page “Twas the Night before Kwanzaa” and shorter stories, like the two page “Present Tense,” and it would make for a boring article for me to pontificate on each of them. For some, I will be giving the Cliff’s Notes, and for others, you’ll get the low down.

In “The Present,” Writer Devin Grayson takes Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, and Green Arrow, Connor Hawke, Christmas shopping in the middle of a Hostage crisis.

DC-Holiday2Chuck Dixon pens a Hanukkah story, wherein an old neighborhood synagogue, Beth Shalom, is robbed, and the thief not only steals the offering money, but spills the last of the lamp oil. As sunset nears on toward Sabbath, and the thief escapes, Batman hunts the crook, and another hero saves the day in a liturgical sense. It is drawn by Dave Taylor and Wayne Fauchner, and titled “House of Peace.”

In “Present Tense,” Ty Templeton treats us to a show-down between dastardly despotic Darksied and Santa Claus. It’s pretty-much like it sounds. Awesome.

Black Lightning, and his Italian-American police contact, help a former gang-banger rescue his family-held-hostage in “Twas the Night before Kwanzaa.” With a story by Black Lightning creator Tony Isabella and striking black and white, charcoal-style art by Eddie Newell, this is a pretty straight-forward action tale. Unmissable is the love Isabella has for his subject, and that makes something special in the end.

Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding treat us to a brief glimpse into Superman’s life, to remind us that parents never stop being parents. They call it “The Gift.”

Howard Chaykin takes us back to Gotham City on December 24, 1944 in a story called “I Left My Heart at the Justice Society Canteen.” Here, a young ensign on leave heads downtown to the Justice Society Canteen, a USO hall run by everyone’s favorite Golden Age heroes. This story was a stand out for me, and for three big reasons. First, I love the JSA, and seeing The Flash, Doc Fate, Liberty Belle and the Phantom Lady (and so many more) in the crowd was just more than great. Chaykin does a remarkable job intersecting the real world history and flavor of WW2 with the Golden Age of the DCU, and artist Rick Burchett‘s almost cartoony style is perfect. I mean, Wildcat as the bouncer and Ma Hunkel/the Red Tornado running roughshod over the kitchen and its staff – what’s not to love? Second, WW2 has always meant something to me, and while I am certain this is not the place to explore that, this story from the homefront tread softly on my heart. And third, it was not the heroes that saved the day. You see, in the midst of all the merry making and entertainment, Nazi saboteurs have snuck in to do dirty, but a lowly ensign is the one to out them! And don’t think this is the last time you’ll meet this fellow, either!

DC-Holiday3Only two tales left and they are both pretty short. Chuck Dixon again takes the reins, aided this time by Russ Heath, in “Sgt Rock in ‘A Christmas Carol.’” It’s Christmas 1944, and oddly a day after Chaykin‘s tale, and famed Sgt Rock of Easy Company has a vision of three spirits of war past, war present, and war future. The spirits take Rock to visit the trenches of WW1, the Nazi death camps, and Arlington National Cemetery. It may sound simple and contrived, but I am seriously tearing up to think of this story even now. Never forget, folks.

Ahem.

The last one is a little piece called “Old Lane Sign.” In it, Brian Stelfreeze and Devin Grayson co-plot a touching scene of friendship and reminiscence between Nightwing and Oracle. They do a great job demonstrating the closeness between these two characters and why they, to me, seem made for each other. On a final note, I have always loved how comfortable Stelfreeze seems to be with drawing figures that, while stylized, are certainly not idealized. His characters just seem very, very real.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this bit o’ holiday fun and cheer, and if you happen by a comic shop, drop a buck or two on this forgotten bit of story and wonder. You won’t be sorry.

Merry Christmas!

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Revisiting Sandman #2

sandman1

This installment is part of an ongoing series in which Christopher re-reads and analyzes one of the greatest comic book series of this or any age. Truth be told, he thinks way too hard about this series, but it’s okay: he knows that other people think way too hard about this series as well. He likes to justify his thoughts by telling himself that he is writing this series for those people.

When last we left Sandman, Morpheus, the King of Dreams, had escaped his captivity and returned to his realm to find it destitute and destroyed from the years he had been imprisoned. He is distraught to find that not only is his realm crumbling, but he also lacks the power to rebuild it. What follows is three stories, which involve Morpheus searching for three artifacts of his power: his sand pouch, his helm, and his dream crystal. These three artifacts were stolen from him by Roderick Burgess, at the beginning of his imprisonment.

Finding the first artifact takes him to England, where he meets up with John Constantine, who was the last known person to possess his pouch. Constantine tells him that the pouch was stolen from him by his ex-girlfriend, Rachel. When Morpheus and Constantine finally track her down, she is a shell of a person, under the control of dreams and addicted to the sand within Morpheus’s pouch. The fight is a short one, though, as Morpheus is the king of dreams, and this is his domain.

Through this story, we are given a glimpse into Morpheus’s personality primarily through the conversation he has with Constantine over Rachel’s fate. Morpheus is content to let her wither away, while Constantine insists that Morpheus help her. There a neutrality present in Morpheus’s response that makes it creepy as all get out. He’s not malicious in his decision to leave her alone, he just doesn’t care. Even when he chooses to give her peace in death, it’s not out of mercy or compassion. To him, her fate doesn’t matter. Interestingly enough, this portrayal is one of the things that makes Gaiman’s Morpheus so compelling. In a universe where main characters typically fall into two basic camps: heroes and villains, Morpheus is something else entirely, choosing between benevolence and malevolence as easily as someone might choose between soup and salad.

His pouch obtained, Morpheus heads to Hell, where he hopes to find the second artifact: his helm, which has come into the possession of a demon. In this story, Gaiman continues to build on the mythology he started creating with the first two issues of Sandman. On his way to meet Lucifer, Morpheus passes a cell, where an African woman begs him to save her. She refers to him as “Lord Kai’ckul,” to which he changes form to respond to her, creating the idea that Morpheus is the king of all dreams in all cultures, not just Europeans. The interchange is less than a page long, but it speaks volumes about Morpheus’s true power and status.

After meeting up with Lucifer, Morpheus is surprised to find out that the prince of darkness has relinquished total and complete control of Hell, splitting power equally among himself and two other rulers. In a show of force, the three rulers of Hell call forth the entire host of demons to have an audience with Morpheus, who demands his helm back. The demon who has claimed the helm challenges Morpheus to a battle of wits. If Morpheus wins, he gets his helm back. If he loses, he remains a resident of Hell for eternity. As with the previous story, the demon is no match for Morpheus, who wins easily. In one final show of force, Morpheus calmly walks past a million demons, as Lucifer vows to someday destroy him.

The final story of the trilogy follows Morpheus to a small town outside of Gotham City, where he hopes to reclaim his crystal from Doctor Destiny, a silver-age Justice League villain, who has been imprisoned in Arkham Asylum for decades. Back in the 1960s, Doctor Destiny created a machine to create reality from the fabric of dreams. In an interesting retcon, Gaiman establishes that Destiny used Morpheus’s crystal to power his machine. In the process, however, he modified the crystal in such a way that it no longer responds to Morpheus. When Destiny escapes Arkham, he becomes Morpheus’s most powerful foe yet, as he chooses to meet Morpheus in the realm of dreams.

Before the final battle, however, we are treated to my favorite story out of the first volume. “24 Hours” follows the experience of a group of patrons of a roadside diner, as Doctor Destiny uses the power of the crystal to shape their experiences and perspectives. The story takes place over an entire day, as Destiny toys with them and shapes them into his playthings, ultimately forcing them all to either kill each other or commit suicide. It’s a remarkably dark story that displays some of the more twisted elements of Gaiman’s storytelling. It’s a horror comic story in the classic sense of the term, and it’s one of the only comic books I have ever read that has truly scared me. It feels very similar to “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, which I talked about a few weeks ago. A group of people become the toys of an all-powerful being, and the parallels are more than striking. More importantly, though, the story showcases the ambivalent nature of Morpheus’s power. While Morpheus is neutral in the use of his power, Doctor Destiny has no such neutrality. He is a malevolent and unbalanced force, and being able to wield the power of dreams to serve his own purposes creates a truly terrifying picture.

When Morpheus and Destiny finally do meet in battle, it’s the most interesting battle of the three stories, as Morpheus is clearly outclassed in terms of power. Destiny’s control over the dream realm using the crystal is so great, and his mind so unbalanced, that Morpheus’s pleas fall on deaf ears. It’s only through the manipulation of Destiny’s own hubris that Morpheus is victorious. After Destiny destroys the crystal, thinking it will destroy Morpheus, the King of Dream’s full power is released from the crystal and returns to him, making him more powerful than he has been in centuries. With his full power unlocked, Morpheus returns Destiny to Gotham. And in a brief show of mercy, Morpheus returns Destiny’s ability dream. It creates a nice parallel to the previous story, as it shows that the power of dreams is not nearly as important as the person who wields it.

Overall, these three stories each serve an interesting function within the Sandman mythos that Gaiman has created. In each one, a different element of Morpheus’s power is showcased, revealing to the reader that he is not only powerful, but one of the most powerful entities in the DCU. Whether he is going toe-to-toe with Doctor Destiny or standing up to the entire force of Hell, Morpheus is a force to be reckoned with, and this is made all the more potent by his calm and unfeeling demeanor. He is a force you don’t want to mess with, and this idea is cemented more and more with each story. It’s a testament to Gaiman’s abilities as both a storyteller and a worldbuilder.

In the next installment of Revisiting Sandman, we’ll be looking at only one story, but it’s an important one: the first appearance of Morpheus’s sister, Death.

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Quarterbin Follies #10: Whatever Happened to the Man Under a Yellow Sun

Supes3Several weekends ago we were doing some cleaning at my place, the wife and I. I had just gotten a new filing cabinet for my comic collection (for a total of four cabinets), which was really cool, as I had run out of storage space a few years ago. Anyway, in all the cleaning and rearranging, I re-discovered somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-300 comics just sitting in boxes waiting to be found, read, sorted, and filed. Suffice it to say, I have a TON of old comics and a few new ones newly rediscovered for review here on Quarterbin Follies. GET READY FOR THE RIDE!

Ahem.

So anyway, prior to my “great discovery,” I had been down to Game Time, our local game shop, and grabbed up a copy of Under a Yellow Sun, the Superman graphic novel from 1994. This has been on my “to read” list for years. When it first came out, I did not have the spare bread (well, that I wasn’t spending on Bat-books) and since that time, I haven’t seen it anywhere, at least never when I had spare bread, (again, that I wasn’t spending on Bat-books). Anyway, I read the thing, and enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated. In fact it might have taken its place as my favorite Superman comic.

Now, I need to explain something. I am not, and never really have been, a Superman fan. I don’t want to get into the theories of ‘why’, but for this-and-that, Supes was never “my boy.” And, so, I want to make very clear that my favorite Superman story is very likely not the best Superman story ever. Bear that in mind.

For years on end, my all-time favorite Superman story had been Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Now, I am not going to say Yellow Sun unseated “Whatever,” but there is a real contest going on! So, join with me as I walk the road between this thing and that, to see how these stories stack up.

“Whatever” was, as previously mentioned, penned by the legendary Alan Moore, but it was the brain child of Silver- and Bronze-Age Supes editor, Julius Schwartz. It was 1985, and the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” was just the excuse DC needed to reboot the Boy Scout for a new Generation. Problem was that the last generation, well, they weren’t quite done with the Man of Steel.

Supes1In the DCU, before the “Crisis,” Superman could do about anything in about 24 pages. It was a world that was bright and remarkably happy, where villains were thwarted before they could get murderous. And sure, the Pre-Crisis DCU, especially Superman, was a bit—or a lot—silly, but that was the charm, I think. It was not a world that denied evil, but it was one, I suppose, most committed to HOPE.

For the previous 30 years, writers like Schwartz himself, Elliot S! Maggin, E.Nelson Bridwell, and countless others had left bread crumbs and plot threads scattered like ticker-tape-beacons that could light the road to decades of more Superman stories. And it was this world that needed-must come to an end there in 1985. Ol’ Julie wanted to seize upon the chance to really knock out a grand finale to this version of the Kal-El before John Byrne and his Man of Steel mini flipped the script, as it were. And it was Alan Moore, the creator of John Constantine, the fellow behind the Swamp Thing, and the guy that destroyed the world in Watchmen, who was given the task to close-out the world of Superman. And this is how he began:

“This is an IMAGINARY STORY (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed; of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights; of the women he loved, and of the choice he made between them; of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things he had were taken from him save one. It ends with a wink. It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky…but no:it’s only a bird, only a plane—Superman died ten years ago. This in an IMAGINARY STORY…aren’t they all?”

Moore sets up a framing sequence where Lois, now an Elliot—now a wife and mother—sits down to share her memories of Superman’s last days. And, just like the introductory blurb above, we are treated to the show where all of Supes’ most notable foes take it up a notch, and all of those ideas and threads I talked about before are brought together in a four-color spectacle so remarkable that is really must be seen.

For many years, this was at the top of my very short Superman list. Moore’s story telling was simple, but serious, everything that was best about the Pre-Crisis Superman. While not avoiding the necessary severity of the subject material, from murder and suicide to siege warfare to divorce, Moore couched them in a dressing that children can still glom onto—he put the cookies on the bottom shelf.

(“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was originally published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #58 with classic pencil art by Superman veteran Curt Swan with inks by George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger respectively.)

Under a Yellow Sun is a very different story. Like “Whatever,” It relies upon a framing device to tell its story, but it in fact has two stories to tell. On the one hand, we are dealing with the somewhat younger and green Clark. He is dating Lois and faces off against Lex Luthor, the untouchable business tycoon. Plus, Clark is stressed out because he is also battling a far less tangible foe – writer’s block! He has a novel deadline to meet, and his noir-influenced thriller is stalled.

Supes2The graphic novel, written by John Francis Moore, bounces between the telling of Clark’s day-to-day life as a crusading journalist/superhero and the telling of his novel, with illustrated excerpts from the novel (colored like a faded black and white film print and illustrated by Eduardo Barreto) intersecting with Supes “real” life as rendered by Kerry Gammill and Dennis Janke. You see, when Clark cannot figure out where to lead his ex-Spec-Ops David Guthrie, he draws some inspiration from a metropolis gang war. The street thugs known as the Griffins have somehow ended up with a stolen cache of advanced Lexcorp military-grade blaster rifles. Clark suspects Lex is behind the whole thing, but he can find nothing to support his suspicion. And so, he writes.

The streets of Metropolis are traded for the beaches and jungles of war-torn Corto Maltese (in DC’s fictionalized Carribbean). Lex Luthor is exchanged for real estate mogul and war profiteer, Preston Trager, and gang warfare is replaced with the violent aftermath of a questionable revolution. As things progress in the world of Clark and Lex and Lois, so too they progress with Guthrie and Trager and medic Rebecca Carr, each of the two tales blending closer and closer together before a final, distinct diversion.

As a writer and a comic fan, I loved this. The level of meta-fiction is something that I have lived with my own self, and played with in my own fiction. Clark’s creative struggle, his balancing the creative with the commercial, lent a real relatability to Clark that most Superman stories seem to lack.

And that is where the rubber meet the road between these two stories. In “Whatever,” you have an end to Superman, an almost divine if not faultless entity. He is a dream of an idea that becomes something more tangible, and perhaps something more meaningful. In Yellow Sun we see the story of a man, albeit a super-man, who defines his humanity by his relationships. But this he does from the outset, not at the end of all things. And I think that might be why I like Yellow Sun so much – because Clark takes the time to “get it right” the first time around. Yellow Sun is a “middle” that will lead to an ending, whereas “Whatever” is an ending that wraps up a story never intended to end.

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Chris's Comic Picks: Secret Six #1

Secret-SixI was a late comer to Gail Simone‘s Secret Six. I’ve been a fan of Simone ever since I first read her run on Birds of Prey, but when she was writing Secret Six originally, I wasn’t collecting comics, so I didn’t have a chance to read it on a monthly basis. I was introduced to the title through scans that Simone reblogged on her Tumblr account. From the little glimpses I received in those scans, I fell in love with the characters and their unique voices. When I finally read more of the series — entire story lines, even — I knew that this was a comic I wanted to read. It had intrigue and comedy and tragedy and fun, and it was everything I loved about super hero comics, made all the better by Simone’s excellent writing and dialogue.

Simply put, I currently look forward to the day when I have enough spare cash lying around to buy the entire original run, because I feel like this is a book I’d like to have the entire run of.

Needless to say, I’m not the only one to harbor such feelings about the book. In the time since its run, it’s quickly become one of the the most beloved books DC has put out in this last decade, and for many, its absence in the New52 was a glaring error on the part of the comic book behemoth.

Jump ahead to the summer of 2014, when Simone ominously tweeted out the following:

Of course, it didn’t take long for the denizens of the Internet to crack her SECRET code, and it became fairly common knowledge from that point on, that Simone would be writing a new Secret Six series, set within the New 52. Which brings us to this week, when the first issue of the new series was finally released.

Now, as I said, I didn’t follow the original series when it was being published, but the stuff I’ve read since it ended made me excited about the idea of joining up with Simone on this new book, jumping in from the very beginning. Which is what I did this Wednesday, when I saw the first issue of Secret Six Vol. 2 hit the storefront on Comixology. What I got for my $2.99 turned out to be a great mixture of action, comedy, and character development. In short, I got exactly what I expected to get from a comic book written by Gail Simone.

The story quickly introduces the reader to everyone’s favorite Catman, Thomas Blake, in a dive bar in the middle of Mexico, hooking up with a couple patrons. Some government-types enter the bar and place Blake under arrest, which naturally led to a lot of Catman being all Catman-ey, which the whole jumping and scratching. After getting sucker-punched, Blake is drugged, and the comic quickly shifts to what appears to be the inaugural mystery of the book. Blake is locked in a room with five other villains. None of them have any history together, and they all appear to be as different as different can be. Veteran Secret Six-er, Black Alice, makes an appearance, along with Simone creations from Batgirl, Strix and Venriloquist.

SecretSix2From the character interactions to the situations to the environments, it appears that Simone has more than a few secrets waiting in the wings, and this is all made the more fun by Simone’s solid writing. She knows how to create rhythm in a comic book story that never gets boring. There are highs and lows, fasts and slows, comedies and actions through each page, and all of this is gorgeously brought to life through Ken Lashley’s visually interesting, sketchy art style. There are some artistic inconsistencies between the first and second half of the story, but nothing that hurts the overall consistency and flow of the book.

I lost myself in this first issue, and that’s a good thing.

In fact, I was so invested, the only part of the book I felt was jarring was the end, which I felt came a little too quickly. We aren’t given much of an introduction to the other members of the mystery group, other than their names, and I felt that was a shame. I like the new Catman, but one of the great things about the original Secret Six was the interactions and relationships between the characters. We didn’t really have time to get into that in this first issue, but I’m sure that will change as the issues go on. After all, Simone barely had time to fit her ragtag team of villains into an impossible situation, before the final page turned, and she managed to end it on a cliffhanger that will definitely get me back next month. In that sense, I guess it’s a success?

I don’t know yet if this is going to have the charm of the original Secret Six, which is beloved by fans from all walks of life, but I can say this: I haven’t collected comics in a while (three years of graduate school, followed by five months of unemployment will do that to you), but I am happy that I’m coming back to something as interesting as this. While the book does feel a little light on content, what’s there is fantastic, and I’m excited to uncover all of this book’s secrets in the coming months.

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Revisiting Sandman #1

 

Kindly-OnesI found my first Sandman comic in a quarter bin. Now, I know that the quarter bin is usually the domain of my cohort, but for the purposes of this column, and subsequent columns in this series, I need to establish my foundation. I didn’t start with Sandman #1, though I admit that would have been a great place to start. No, I started with Sandman #57, the first issue of the “The Kindly Ones.” I had recently pulled a few issues of Bone out of the quarter bin at the local antique shop that sold some comics, and I was digging through the rest of the books trying to find more, when I came across this issue. The cover told me nothing about the comic itself, but I had heard enough about the book to be intrigued. I also knew who Neil Gaiman was from Good Omens, a book that my friend told me I had to read, but I hadn’t actually read yet. For a quarter, I thought, why not? I ended up buying the four or so issues that were hidden within the bin, all random issues from “The Kindly Ones”, and devouring them that night. I was blown away by the universe Gaiman had built, and I knew that what I was reading, even four or five years after it was published, was something special. Looking back, I can say that that moment was the genesis of my love for the works of Neil Gaiman, something that continues to this day.

Jump ahead a year or two. Rhys and I had this system where we would share comics. We would each buy different books on our monthly pull list and swap titles that we thought the other would be interested in. If we were considering adding a title to our pull list, we would ask the other if he intended to, so that we wouldn’t end up doubling up on issues, unless we really, really, really wanted our own copies. We would do the same with any graphic novels or trade paperbacks we purchased, a system which eventually led to my reintroduction to Sandman. At one point, after Rhys has traveled with his family to Cheyenne, Wyoming, he returned with a copy of the “Preludes and Nocturnes”, the first collection of Sandman comics. I, of course, snatched up the opportunity to borrow the book, and if I wasn’t hooked before, it wasn’t long before I was hopelessly addicted to the story and all it presented.

Which leads me to this week and this week’s column, the first in what I hope will be a series of terrific columns focusing on one of my favorite comic books series ever. But, first, a little more backstory. I don’t sleep very well at night. I’m an anxious person by nature, and it’s hard to turn that off. My mind is just too active with all of the different things I need to do throughout the day, and when it comes time for me to slow down and drift off, I become fixated on my life outside my bed. And it ends up taking me forever to start shutting that stuff down.

sandman1One of the ways I’ve found to solve this problem is to focus my mind on something else. While my mind may remain active, if I can narrow down its activity to a single point, it is much easier to drive that course to slumber. Lately, I’ve been re-reading “Preludes and Nocturnes”. I’ve had it on my phone for a few years now, ever since DC released the digital version on the Amazon store. When I bought a Kindle Fire, it was one of the first purchases I made to try out comics on a tablet, and now, re-reading it years later, I’m still blown away by the fact that I can hold an entire graphic novel in the palm of my hand. Crotchety-old-man-isms aside, though, I’m amazed to find that I enjoy this comic as much as I do, despite the fact that I’ve read it a million times before.

It’s hard to explain exactly what it is that appeals to me, and I know that smarter people than I have probably written dissertations on the series, but there’s something about it that just grabs me and refuses to let go. The first issue starts out simply enough. A secret society of wizards is attempting to capture Death, but instead, they capture her brother, Morpheus, the King of Dreams. He spends over seventy years in captivity, until a slight oversight sets him free. He enacts revenge on his captor and returns to his domain, the Dreaming, broken, exhausted, and nearly dead. This entire story is told through the words of Gaiman set against the beautiful backdrops of penciler Sam Keith’s simple, yet complex, imagery. The artistry of the panels can sometimes make the action hard to follow, but even that is a rare situation. Most of the time, the comic is engrossing on multiple levels. From the dialogue to the plot to the artwork to the colors, the entire book just works. As the story progresses into the second issue, and we’re introduced to Cain and Abel, two of the inhabitants of the Dreaming, and through these interactions, Gaiman begins to develop the mythos of the story that engrossed me so much as a teenager and continues to do so now.

What I’m loving more than anything with this read-through, though, is how important DC Continuity was to Gaiman, when he developed the story. Wesley Dodd, the original Sandman from 1939, had long since fallen into obscurity. With this new Sandman series, though, Gaiman weaved Dodd into the mythos, creating something entirely unique at the same time. Suddenly, all of those old Sandman stories weren’t just classic, silly Golden Age stories about a guy in a business suit and a gas mask, he was the charge of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, affecting what little he could of the world from his glass prison. Later Sandman stories featuring Dodd, both in this Sandman series, and other mini-series set in the 1930s would continue to cement this symbiotic relationship between the two, creating something altogether unique and interesting.

It’s something that neither of the two big companies would likely do in the current industry, and I think that’s a shame. Then again, I’m not entirely sure that anyone could do it quite as well as Gaiman did in this series. Maybe it’s good they don’t try. Though, to be fair, James Robinson did an amazing job of that in his Starman revival, which to this day remains my favorite example of retroactive continuity done right. But, again, modern comics have no place for anything like this, and that makes me a little sad. I know that the industry is geared toward casting the widest net possible for potential fans, and I’m okay with that.

I can understand and appreciate that sentiment. It just makes me a little sad.

Not a lot happens in the first two issues of Sandman in the grand scheme of things. We’re introduced to characters, and Gaiman starts building his worlds, and ultimately we’re hooked, and engrossed, and we want to read more. Thankfully, there is more. Gaiman wrote 75 issues of this series, and these first two issues merely scratch the surface. I have read on, and I know the truth: there is so much more to come. And, personally, I am so excited to revisit it.

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What DC is Doing Right

wonderwoman

This week, Warner Bros., the conglomerate that owns DC Comics, the publishers of everyone’s favorite giant rat, announced ten new movies in the prospective bag over the next five years:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Suicide Squad (2016)
Wonder Woman (2017)
Justice League Part One (2017)
The Flash (2018)
Aquaman (2018)
Shazam (2019)
Justice League Part Two (2019)
Cyborg (2020)
Green Lantern (2020)

To no one’s surprise, there are some pretty expected titles up there. We have Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice, which is a weird name, and of course the Zack Snyder-helmed Justice League. There were, however, some cool surprises, though. Movies like Wonder Woman, Flash, and Cyborg. And some I don’t get, like Suicide Squad. I mean, seriously, why follow your big Batman and Superman film with Suicide Squad? It makes no sense.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Fox’s Gotham, and how the show was representative of DC not understanding their audience. And I was very tempted to write about that again, especially in light of these announcements. Let’s face it: It’s a great list, and I’m excited about some of the movies, but it’s evident that they don’t have much of a cohesive plan at the moment. It kind of looks like they’re just throwing a ton of different things at the wall to see what sticks.

What? Marvel just made a ka-billion dollars on their movie about a C-List team of outlaws? Do we have anything like that? Suicide Squad? Sure. Close enough.

I didn’t want to write about that, though. Not too much. Often times, I grow tired of lobbing criticism onto the Internet to join with the other bunches of negativity floating around. Instead, I want to lob some praise DC’s direction. Cautious praise, of course, because I’ve been burned before (**Cough Cough** Green Lantern **Cough Cough**), but praise none-the-less.

Here’s a list of four things I think DC is doing well in their current onslaught of films with washed-out colors.

Continue reading

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