My Misspent Youth: JLA by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

For a little while in the nineteen-nineties, I was prepared to follow writer Grant Morrison just about anywhere. When I made that unstated pledge, it never occurred to me that I’d be following him to the Justice League.

I knew of Morrison’s work because of the writing he did on the fringes of the DC Universe. In a way, Morrison set the template for the publisher’s Vertigo imprint, launched in 1993. He took on authorship duties with characters from DC’s history — most notably Doom Patrol and Animal Man — but brought a whole other creative cunning to their adventures, indulging in devious meta shenanigans and otherwise plunging them into dark, warped stories.

In the mid-nineteen-nineties, after following those wondrously weird tendrils of imagination, Morrison received an assignment that initially seemed perplexing. He was given a revived version of DC’s superteam, branded with the hip acronym JLA.

The Justice League of America had been around for ages, though it had long strayed from the model of bringing together the publisher’s biggest heroes, opting instead for unloved also-rans and then flagrant comedy. Morrison was allowed his own version of a back to the basics approach, with the biggest names in the DC comics stable (although the ever-flailing DC editorial approach occasional left him saddled with bad ideas like sparking blue Superman). I didn’t always gel for me, but when Morrison’s sensibility melded with a perfect story concept, it was irresistible, no more so that the when Starro muscled into the panels.

Starro dated back to the very first appearance of the Justice League of America, published in 1960, making it natural that Morrison would want to use the villainous being at one point. The story also made room for a more recent figure.

JLA sandman

Sandman was already considered writer Neil Gaiman’s comics masterpiece, making it fairly audacious that Morrison took the central figure and plopped him down into a big ol’ superhero story. But by employing the cryptic deep thinking, Morrison had a mechanism for engaging in some of the sideways thinking he brought to his mainstream far, such as Green Lantern having his mind blown by the reference to his tool of choice as a “wishing ring.”

Even better, Morrison back then had a particular skill for honoring the tropes of the superhero mythos while simultaneously extrapolating to get at deeper truths that could be easily overlooked because of the familiarity of the rhythms of a comic book adventure. Villains show up, the heroes fight the villains. Morrison took the time to think about the impressions that might be generated by these strange creatures populating the story. For example, wouldn’t a giant outer space starfish that controlled minds be, you know, pretty scary?

JLA starro

The oddness of Howard Porter’s art could make the more conventional moments a little off, but he was well-suited to bringing the freakiness.

Morrison told dense intricate stories, but working on JLA opened up his sense of grandeur. The scope could be titanic. These heroes weren’t going to spend a lot of time stopping bank robbers. Most of them could comfortably cross out of the planet’s atmosphere and cavort among the stars, so Morrison regularly veered into appropriate levels of spectacle.

jla starro in space

Still, no matter how much mischief Morrison got up to, these stories go the way they go. Starro is bested and the heroes recline in the satisfaction of their victory.

Sometimes, Morrison’s ideas got too big for the comics page, and it seemed he was only able to type out about a third of what he had in mind, leaving sprawl and uncertainty on the page. That was present in JLA (I might argue the flaw first manifested here), but it was energizing to see a creator go big with ideas instead of just spectacle, reversing a dire trend of nineties comics. Even when it got a little bogged down, this take on the Justice League was worth the effort.

jla ending

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — Marvel Team-Up Annual #7 by Louise Simonson and Paul Neary

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I started reading superhero comics, I had only a passing interest in Marvel Team-Up, which routinely paired Spider-Man with other costumed do-gooders, albeit ones who weren’t quite as amazing or spectacular as him, at least when it came to sales numbers. For some reason, the exception was the title’s yearly Annuals, one-off, double-sized adventures that were published in the summer months, presumably because kids were patrolling the spinner racks with a little more money in their pockets thanks to lawn-mowing gigs. (It was a different time, friends.) These thicker periodicals I found more difficult to resist, especially if favorite characters were sharing the masthead. And in the summer of 1984, the Canadian crimefighters of Alpha Flight were high on my list.

I was already a devotee of the Alpha Flight series, written and drawn by John Byrne, but my feelings were especially intense at the time the characters crossed over to Marvel Team-Up Annual #7. My nerdy little brain had been recently been blown by the landmark Alpha Flight #12, in which the team’s leader, Guardian, had been killed. I was feverishly committed to reading every last Alpha Flight story I could get my hands on. (It was around this time that I spent way too much to procure a copy of the X-Men issue that held Alpha Flight’s first appearance.) Seeing them on a comic book cover compelled me to make a purchase, even if they were joining Marvel’s flagship character in grappling with an oversized pink snake.

Written by Louise Simonson and penciled by Paul Neary, the story begins with the wall-crawler’s alter ego, Peter Parker, suffering some typical workplace indignity, as Daily Bugle editor Joe “Robbie” Robertson chastised him for a numbing sameness in the subject of his photojournalism efforts.

mtuann pix

Though Peter’s word balloon has his boss’s name spelled with a y, I swear the way I typied it above is correct. Also, I’m aware that few things illuminate the comic fan pedantry I still carry than an urgent, mid-post fact-check of a minor narrative detail. I’ll take my No-Prize now.

Shortly after Robbie tells Peter that Spider-Man shots aren’t really needed, another figure develops a very different theory about the desirability of wall-crawler memorabilia. Although, in the case of the intergalactic figure known at the Collector, the desired trinket is the super-powered man himself. So, a few panels later, Spider-Man finds himself ensnared, with the added indignity of being tossed by a multi-headed genie into the prison of an oversized oyster shell.

mtuann oyster

Yay, comics!

Meanwhile, a member of Alpha Flight, the slick-swimming Marrina, was also scooped up by the Collector along the way. That brings the charging Canucks into action.

mtuann af

As if often the case in these impromptu collaborations between superheroes, things don’t exactly proceed smoothly. In keeping with the deliberately disparate storytelling that epitomized the Alpha Flight title — though technically a team book, the characters spent most of the periodical’s first year engaged in solo adventures — and the group’s recent loss of leadership, the heroes from the north spent a lot of time bickering, much to Spider-Man’s annoyance.

mtuann fight

Just as the turmoil was predictable, so was the ending. Rescues and escapes were perpetrated, and justice was done, everything wrapped up before the final page.

I remember the issue fondly enough, but it’s also one that helped teach me an important lesson about how to select which comics I’d read. At the time, I completely bought into the notion that the proper was to pick favorite characters and stick with them, through and through.

But this issue of Marvel Team-Up Annual wound up presenting me with a contradicting experience. Although Simonson hit all the right details in her presentation of the characters — such as Aurora’s claustrophobia inducing the emergence of one of her multiple personalities, Northstar’s arrogance, and Sasquatch’s scientist certainly existing somewhat incongruously with his furry colossus physical figure — something seemed off about my beloved Alpha Flight. They were written correctly, and yet they didn’t have the same zing as I found in their primary publishing home. I wasn’t a fan of Alpha Flight, it turned out — I was a fan of Byrne’s version of Alpha Flight. It was about the creator, not the brand, which was really driven home when Byrne left Alpha Flight about a year later and the title got so bad, so quickly.

As far as life lessons go, it’s not a bad or particularly traumatizing one. And, as a bonus, it did have that giant pink snake in it.

mtuann end

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: Fantastic Four #191 by Len Wein and George Pérez

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Once I threw my heart into the fierce grasp of superhero comic books, there were certain older issues that I intensely coveted. Largely, my desired prizes weren’t the four-color publications that naturally set speculators’ hearts aflutter, like Action Comics #1, or Amazing Fantasy #15, or even the more recent landmark tales like the issue of The Incredible Hulk that introduced the world to Wolverine (though, as a true believer, I knew the cantankerous Canadian actually debuted in the final panel of the previous issue). I wanted to fill out my collection with a handful of comic books that simply caught my eye as I perused back issue stacks, promising little more than a rollicking or stirring story inside. One of the first specific comics I remember pining after was Fantastic Four #191.

Written by Len Wein and penciled by George Pérez, the issue held a special significance in the history of Marvel’s first family.  The issue’s cover said it all. It’s a close-up of the feet of all the members of the do-gooder quartet. They are walking away, a battered issue of The Daily Bugle on the pavement. The headline: “F.F. RESIGN.” Entirely uncharacteristic for the era, there’s no other promotional copy on the cover, promising scintillating adventures inside, the florid description finished with a bursting exclamation mark. That choice alone bestowed solemnity, finality, and class in my dewy eyes. Of course, I knew the break-up of the super-team wasn’t going to last, but it didn’t matter. I needed to read this comic.

ff 191 hug

I eventually got my hands on it, shelling out exponentially more than the thirty-five cents it went for off the spinner rack just a couple years earlier (which still means it only cost me a buck or two). It did not disappoint, providing everything I looked for in my superhero stories: melodrama, superhuman fisticuffs, wry humor, and a strong sense of place within the sprawling Marvel Universe.

The Fantastic Four were ceasing their operation as a going concern, largely because the team’s leader, Reed Richards, had lost his powers of exaggerated elasticity. Even as the various members are in the midst of the sorrowful trek away from their Manhattan skyscraper headquarters in the famed Baxter Building, the inevitable attack by an opportunistic supervillain takes place.

ff plunderer

Since heroes are always heroes, the portion of the Fantastic Four still equipped with heightened traits smashes into action.

ff191 fight

The issue’s villain, the Plunderer, is ultimately fairly weak tea when pitted against the might of the Fantastic Four, and he’s accordingly dispatched in quick order. That’s not the point, anyway. It’s Wein’s way to provide a brief fake-out, while also fulfilling the mandate of the time that, come on, there’s gotta be a brawl, no matter what other heavy drama is happening in the issue.

The Fantastic Four are back, but only for a moment. Despite the hearty hopefulness stirred up, the team sticks with the plan to hang up their uniforms, seemingly for good.

ff 191 baxter “YOU’D BEST NOTE THE DATE, EFFENDI, FOR A LEGEND DIED HERE THIS DAY … AND THE WORLD MAY NEVER SEE ITS LIKE AGAIN!!

There was a time when superhero comics were deliriously fun to read, built upon zippy ideas and filled with language that somehow intermingled luscious vocabulary with bounding chumminess. It was the Marvel creative voice, set a generation earlier by founding scribe Stan Lee. For a time, those who followed him took it as their duty to preserve that approach, even as they put their own stamp on the characters. Wein did so beautifully. And he had a unique skill at finding enticing hooks for his stories. There’s a reason the basic premise of the story, depicted simply of the cover with little of Marvel’s trademark showmanship, was enough to set me reeling.

Fantastic Four #191 was Wein’s last issue on the title. He jumped ship back to DC Comics, which was always his most natural home. That’s where he co-created Swamp Thing, presided over a beloved run of The Phantom Stranger, and served as a steadying editorial hand, especially with the combustible genius Alan Moore. Still, his plan for the next few issues of Fantastic Four were roughly followed, with each of the characters getting their own little showcase away from the now — and briefly — defunct team, all leading up to the momentous two-hundredth issue. It was a great idea, perfectly executed. I knew it then, and I know it now.

A special hat tip to the proprietors of the couple of websites which unwittingly provided me with images for today’s post.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — The Fourth World saga by Jack Kirby

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I hold a certain piece of comic book publishing in my memory with a specific narrative, and I don’t care to fact-check it. I like it the way it is.

Artist Jack Kirby was one of the primary creators of the Marvel Universe, taking an integral role in the development of characters who now dominate practically every sphere of entertainment. Even without getting into the persnickety particulars of whether Kirby deserves more credit than writer Stan Lee for the stories they spun — from the Fantastic Four to the Avengers to the X-Men, and a dazzling portfolio alongside those foundational figures — it’s undeniable that Kirby’s bold, forceful design aesthetic defined the Marvel publishing house when it was a scrappy upstart and then for the years of dominance that followed.

So Kirby jumping ship to the distinguished competition in the early nineteen-seventies was the biggest of big deals. DC touted the imminent arrival of Kirby with breathless house ads.

kirby ad dc

 

Legend says that Kirby told DC Comics leadership that he would take ownership of the lowest-selling title on the roster, in a simultaneous act of humility (feeling it would be inappropriate to oust other creators from a popular book) and hubris (feeling he could turn around the dismal sales numbers). And that’s how Jack Kirby was assigned writing and penciling duties on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

In prior hands, the series starring a the cub reporter supporting character to DC’s flagship hero was a repository for the loopiest ideas. In a way, that heritage suited Kirby perfectly. He possessed a wild imagination and an utter fearlessness about presenting the bizarre and fantastical as if it made perfect sense, or was at least an extension of the myth-making that was a hallmark of human storytelling from the beginning. Where other comics creators tried to spin similar yarns only to get mired in eye-rolling hokeyness, Kirby had the verve and panache to make such material archly cool and casually grand.

kirby robot

Jimmy Olsen was only the beginning for Kirby at DC. And it was a fraction of the fantastical vision he had. Within a few months Kirby was also presiding over a trio of brand new titles: Mister Miracle, The Forever People, and New Gods. At Marvel, Kirby participated in the sea change that led comic book storytelling from interchangeable larks from issue to issue to an ongoing continuity, rewarding regular readers and creating a more urgent incentive to pic up every issue. Miss an issue of Superman in the nineteen-sixties and all that was lost were a couple stories that would never be referenced again. Miss an issue of Fantastic Four in the same era and there would be a nettlesome gap in the big puzzle of the Marvel saga.

Kirby’s four titles — known informally as the “Fourth World” — took the mighty Marvel model the next logical step. They introduced a vast new internal mythos for the DC Universe, filled with Shakespearean evil, heroism, and familial strife. And the respective titles didn’t necessarily explicitly connect, but they all commented on each other, giving a sense of a whole by concentrating on the inventive minutiae of each individual segment.

And, since it was created by Kirby, there were plenty of fabulous monsters.

kirby monster

I didn’t read the Fourth World comics when they were published. I would have been too young for them. Even a few years later, I wouldn’t have been able to wrap my head around their beautifully ludicrous spectacle. Only years later, when I’d shed my defensive pretension that comics needed to be serious to be appreciated could I see the specialness of Kirby’s creativity at its most unguarded and unhinged.

More than any comic creator before or since, Kirby was able to render big ideas as zippy pop art infused with a childlike storytelling logic, invested in headlong progression rather than heady themes. His stories had weight because they were preoccupied with morality, but Kirby didn’t theorize or pontificate the way his former Marvel collaborator Lee did. Instead, there was a purity of purpose — a smashing delight in working in this dismissed art form — that carried the day. Anything was fair game to Kirby, from star-spanning wonders to a knockabout story teaming Superman with Don Rickles and a weirdo doppelgänger named Goody Rickles. The message printed across the top of a second issue guest-starring Rickles was the perfect credo for the romping Fourth World comics: “KIRBY SAYS: ‘DON’T ASK! JUST BUY IT!”

kirby tomorrow people

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: Batman and Captain America by John Byrne

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I’ve read a lot of comics that were written and drawn by John Byrne. That sentence — or a close variant — has been typed out by me previously, I’m certain. His handwork probably accounts for a more sizable chunk of the previous entries in this feature than any other creator. In the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties, I was willing to follow him just about anywhere, even to the dreaded land of inter-publisher team-up comics.

While I harbor innocent nostalgia for a few entries in this strange comic book subgenre, the conceit of intermingling these fantastical universes usually results in wan storytelling, obviously constrained by corporate nervousness over which copyrighted property will come off better. Besides, the stories didn’t count. I was bound up enough in an eager embrace of official continuity that I was instinctively dismissive of those titanic tales that resides outside of the canon (with certain exceptions). But Byrne was behind one of these experiments in intermingling, so I was all but destined to buy it.

Batman and Captain America was published late in 1996, when Byrne was peddling his wares within the DC Comics stable. It paired the world’s greatest detective and the star-spangled avenger not in what was then the modern day, but reached back into history, positing that the characters got mixed up in one another’s exploits toward the end of World War II. The retrospective approach also allowed Byrne to ignore the gruesomely dark version of Batman who romped through the DC Universe at the time, opting instead for a more personable “old chum” characterization.

bca batman intro

As for Captain America, he was going through his own best-left-ignored era, albeit not one as grim the “Eh, let’s just make him a Nazi approach” that is currently soiling up the spinner rack. But by setting the story in 1945, Byrne was able to engage in other playful details, such as having Cap fight side-by-side with longtime DC war comics hero Sgt. Rock.

bca cap.jpg

The first several pages establish the tone and tenor of the comic beautifully, but there’s no doubt what most people plunked down their quarters for. They wanted to see Batman and Captain America throwing punches together.

bca fightin

Batman and Captain was one of the prestige format books that Marvel and DC both played around with in that era, meaning Byrne had plenty of pages to play with — around three times as many as the average comic book story. That gave him room to really explore the inner lore of the characters, mixing and matching with obvious glee. Since both superheroes have teenaged sidekicks around, which not have Batman partner with Bucky for part of the mission, and have Captain America do the same with Robin?

When it came to the villains, though, there was no question which sinister figures would be causing consternation for our esteemed do-gooders. If Captain America is in a major story, the Red Skull is sure to be there, too.

bca red skull

 

And although Batman has a more robust rogues gallery, the Joker is obligatory. The appearance of the white-faced and green-haired foe of Batman at least provides the helpful reminder that even murderous madmen known that Nazis are no good and deserve fierce condemnation without a nanosecond’s hesitation.

bca joker nazi

Despite the title of this feature, I was hardly a youth when I bought this comic, and I was going through one of my periodic spells in which I was seriously considering jettisoning the collecting habit that had once given me such joy. The reason was simple: most of the comics I was reading — superhero comics, anyway — were just plain bad.

Byrne’s Batman and Captain America restored my belief in the possibilities within these colorful adventures, at least a bit. As I once believed — as I once knew — comics could be fun.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I must on occasion, let me preface what follows by conceding that I am about to abuse the word “youth” in the title of this feature. Stumptown, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Matthew Southworth, debuted in 2009, well past the point that I could claim any dewy upon mine eyes. My mild justification for highlighting it under this regular banner is that the series — while hardly a throwback — strongly reminded me of the independent comics I read while in high school, during the initial boom of upstart publishers challenging the so-called Big Two and their near pathological insistence that only superhero adventures could sustain a monthly publishing schedule.

The more accurate justification is that I just wanted to write about Stumptown today. So here we go.

Stumptown 1

The series follows Dex Parios, a privavte investigator in Portland, Oregon. In the manner of countless pulp paperback gumshoes before, Dex is beset by rough-edged flaws. She has a gambling problem, a way of blundering into trouble, and a tendency to hit the bottle hard enough that it is inclined to hit back. Rucka, who’s earned plentiful praise for his female characters over the years, doesn’t write Dex as particular remarkable of tragic. She’s not some facile “strong female character,” in place to prove something about post-feminist feminism or to upend genre norms or anything like that. Instead, she is just a complex person made up of fascinating layers — so the stuff of fine fiction.

While the fundamentals of the character and the storyline — involving a missing young woman, a batch of shifty individuals, and, of course, money that must be followed — are often deployed to fill up a lean detective novel, Rucka isn’t just transporting a story suited for a different format over to the funny pages. He knows full well that he’s writing a comic, which opens him up to other storytelling tactics in terms of staging. In particular, he and Southworth demonstrate an impeccable sense of timing throughout, taking advantage of the static progression of panels to deliver wryly humorous moments.

Stumptown 2

In addition to the jointly impressive commitments to character and plot, Stumptown is notable for its setting. More specifically, in placing the action in Portland, Oregon — Rucka’s home base — the creators deliberately tried to avoid any sort of generic rendering of the Pacific Northwest city, which would be inherently wobbly in its accuracy. As with everything other element, they wanted to get it right.

“It’s always a big disappointment to watch a movie shot in your hometown and find they’ve gotten it all wrong, that’s there’s no way that character can step outside that building and see that bridge or whatever,” Southworth noted in an essay printed in the first issue.

That conviction led him — a resident of nearby Seattle, at least at the time — to do meticulous research on the places Rucka spelled out in his scripts. There’s a general directness to Southworth’s art that can tip over into visuals that are thrilling into their detail and beauty.

stumptown 5

I had never ventured to Portland when I original read the series, but it didn’t matter. The verisimilitude of the storytelling — visually and narrative — carried its own weight that made the whole piece feel more authentic. Especially in an era in which superheroes rule the movie screen, the immediate cultural association with comic book stories is of the wild, the wondrous, the fantastical. Stumptown is a fine reminder that comic books are a medium and not a genre. There are a lot of different kinds of stories to tell in those stepping stone panels, including stories that feel as real as a gun barrel smacked across the bridge of one’s nose.

stumptown 4

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: Doomsday by Marv Wolfman

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

ff doomsday

I can’t overstate how magical it was the first time I walked into a comic book shop. My age was barely into double-digits and it was an era when most comics were sold at supermarkets and drug stores, given plenty of real estate over by the magazines, so it was a strange notion, this whole storefront devoted to nothing but these colorful periodicals populated by super-powered beings.

Thrilling as it was to see the new comic books meticulous arranged alphabetically (as opposed to shoveled randomly into a spinner rack) and the piles upon piles of old issues, I think what impressed me most was the array of ancillary products decorated with popular superheroes. At the time, it was a humble lot. There were no bankbook-breaking statues or life-size replica character accouterments. Still, these were items that I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else.

On one of those first trips to the comic book shop, I picked up a slender and enticing paperback featuring my favorite characters: the Fantastic Four. It was part of the Marvel Novel Series, which gave some of the most prominent writers employed by the publisher an opportunity to try out some straight prose rendering of the wildly imaginative adventures that set the fictional universe churning. Written by Marv Wolfman, the book was entitled Doomsday. I can see with a slightly mortifying level of certainty that is the one novel that I have read repeatedly in my lifetime.

johnny

The story pitted Marvel’s first family against their chief adversary, the malevolent, megalomaniacal Victor Von Doom. The ruler of Latveria was known the world over by his shorter, more pointed moniker: Doctor Doom.

Wolfman’s tale was filled with details I loved from the Fantastic Four comics, including a pronounced sense of the shared fictional history (Doctor Doom’s staging of a college reunion figures into the plot, as does his fierce desire to retrieve his deceased mother from the netherworld) and a crackling commitment to the well-developed character, particular the familial foursome with a penchant for saving the planet from evildoers.

grimm

Wolfman was writing the Fantastic Four monthly title when this novel was published, in 1979. He structures the story with a welcome commitment to honoring who these characters are, teasing out what made them foundational to Marvel, even if they’d long since been overtaken in popularity by other denizens of the wondrous world.

As I noted, the Fantastic Four were my favorite characters, so the fully recognizable depiction of them was important to me. It gave me another avenue to connect with them, to revel in their heroics. And there was the added benefit that it was the written word rather than dialogue and narration layered atop drawn images. I’d get grouched at if I opened up a comic book in class, but this little paperback — simply by virtue of its format — represented acceptable recreational reading.

And read it I did. I lost count of the number of times I returned to the book, rereading and savoring every last bit of it. I eventually picked up other entries in the Marvel Novel Series from that same comic book shop, but none of the others commanded my attention — fully and repeatedly — like Doomsday.

back cover

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.