I made the mistake of staying up late last night to read Daytripper, the graphic novel by twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. I only say “mistake” because Daytripper is a poignant, at times heart-wrenching story of a man’s life, so I was pretty wrung out by the time I finished it.

The man in question is Brás de Oliva Domingos, who is introduced to us as a 32-year-old obituary writer. This first chapter is very much the midpoint of Brás’ life: He has a girlfriend he loves very much, a best friend he hangs out with at and after work, and he’s the apple of his mother’s eye, but he also lives in the shadow of his father – a famous writer, and an emotionally distant man – and he’s struggling to find purpose in his own life. Each of the ten chapters of the book takes us into the past or the future from this point, to show us significant events in Brás’ life.

The structural conceit of the book is that each chapter ends with Brás’ death, and a brief obituary written about him. I found this to be the weakest part of the book, as it seemed to cheapen the emotions of what had gone before in the chapter, making it seem a little too sentimental, making each chapter feel needlessly tragic. Moreover, reading into the book I often wondered how Brás’ life as he lived it to the final chapter diverged from some of the situations where he died. Sometimes he dies through mere circumstance, but other times he or someone else makes decisions which must have gone differently for him to live to other chapters. Most significantly, what happens to his best friend Jorge, which chapter has a powerful conclusion, but which I doubt Brás could have left alone in the world where he survived, but he seems to have dropped it. Filling in the alternatives to those events would have at least given the gimmick more meaning.

That detail aside, the book’s strength is in fleshing out Brás’ life chapter by chapter, starting with his age 32, backing up to show what sort of a man he was to get to that point, and then stumbling forward into how he matures (with a brief aside to his childhood). While Daytripper has some overtones of magical realism, the story overall is more grounded, and the brothers do a wonderful job of painting a picture of the characters and their emotions. In particular we see Brás going from a wide-eyed innocent to a world-weary, almost defeated young man, to a more mature man shaping his own life. But we see all the frustration and joy he experiences along the way, and that’s where the book’s magic really comes from.

(His friend Jorge has a story arc which plays off of Brás’ own story, and which is nearly as powerful, considering he has much less screen time.)

But as with any story which follows a person’s life all the way through, the ending is melancholy (and punctuated with a moment of similar sadness at the end of each chapter). Though it’s to the creators’ credit that they build a character that we’re invested enough in for it to have so much of an impact. Especially when staying up late at night.

I’ve seen Moon and Bá’s art from time to time (notably on Matt Fraction’s Casanova, and Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy), but their work here is far better than I’ve seen before: The art is more detailed, the faces more individual, and the expressions more nuanced than I’ve seen from them before. (Their art styles are so similar I can’t tell who draws which story, and they’re only credited jointly.) Maybe they’ve just become better artists since that earlier work, or maybe they just put their all into this project of theirs.

While Daytripper left me feeling melancholy, and I thought it did have some storytelling flaws, it’s still a terrific graphic novel, and well worth your time and money.

Before Watchmen

Before Watchmen, the upcoming project from DC Comics, has been the talk of the comics world for a little while now. Here’s my two cents on the project.

First, I do get a little tired of Alan Moore saying that he wishes comics companies would stop exploiting properties he created that he doesn’t own, or that he co-owns. On the other hand, he has his wishes, and the media keeps asking him what he thinks of the latest project based on his work, so what do they expect him to say? “Oh gee, you’ve worn me down, so I’ve decided that it’s great they’re doing this.” So I think people who complain about Alan Moore complaining doth protest too much. As long as people keep doing new projects based on his work we’re going to keep hearing him complain about them, so we just have to accept that and move on.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a less-necessary set of books than prequels to Watchmen. It was a gorgeous and influential book which was complete unto itself, and which is tightly tied to the creators who made it (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons). Moreover, it pretty much plumbed the depths of all the major characters, and what was left unsaid was left so deliberately. Any prequels I think would only be interesting to the extent that they inform a new reading of the original book, but since Moore and Gibbons aren’t doing the prequels, I expect they’ll feel superfluous.

It’s strange to me that DC would do prequels to the series, rather than a sequel, since building something new on top of the original might genuinely move the book forward. But doing prequels just seems like a cynical effort to squeeze some more money out of the property – cynical because it indicates that DC is too timid to do anything daring.

Which is ironic because, as Moore has said, the whole point of Watchmen was to do new things with the medium (graphic novels) and the genre (superheroes). You can argue to what extent they succeeded in being truly innovative, but the book clearly greatly influenced comic books for years after it was published. Going back and further rooting around in the backstory of its milieu seems contrary to the spirit of the book itself – and thus all the more cynical.

But in pop culture all old fads end up coming back and being revisited or reworked eventually. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re fresh, and sometimes they’re stale. The only way this project is different from DC relaunching the Doom Patrol/the Teen Titans/the Suicide Squad one more time is that it has Alan Moore complaining about it.

Just remember: The great thing about literature (graphic or otherwise) is this: Regardless of whether or not Before Watchmen ends up being a cheap knock-off of the original, we can always go back and enjoy the original. Considering how many superhero comics have devolved into a serpent swallowing its own tail, that’s an important fact to remember.

The Defenders #1

The Defenders #1, by Matt Fraction, and Terry & Rachel Dodson, Marvel, December 2011

The Defenders #1 is a bad comic book.

From the cover, it has all the hallmarks of something that should be a pretty good comic book: Matt Fraction has a good reputation (I’m not a big fan of his Casanova series – just not my thing – but I quite liked his run on Iron Fist with Ed Brubaker; and I heard good things about The Order). The Dodsons are fine artists (though Terry’s pencils always remind me of Adam Hughes’ style; he’s moving gradually away from that, though). Also, I’ve always had a soft spot the the Defenders; I love Doctor Strange, and this particular combination of heroes (Doc combined with the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer, with a few others tacked on for good measure) usually leads to some quirky stories.

While the cover is a bit drab in its colors (why is everyone wearing some combination of red, white and blue-gray? What happened to Namor’s green swim trunks, or Iron Fists’s green costume, or Doc’s bright-blue outfit and bright-red cape with yellow trim?), it’s still promising.

But the story: Ugh!

“Breaker of Worlds” starts with mayhem in Bucharest as a giant black creature causes rampant destruction. Not exactly something we haven’t seen before – Kurt Busiek’s terrific run on Avengers featured something similar – but not the worst premise for a story.

But then we but to Doctor Strange waking up after casually sleeping with a student, and realizing it was a mistake (as does she). This feels utterly out of character for the good Doctor; certainly he’s slept with his student before (back when they were called “apprentices”) (unless he’s a university professor now, which wouldn’t make much sense for the character), but it was always in the form of a serious relationship. Indeed, Roger Stern’s great run on the title in the 80s was greatly concerned with his relationships with a couple of women in his life.

Then the Hulk shows up, and asks Doc for help – which is apparently hard for him, although the old, childlike Hulk felt that Strange was one of the few people in the world he actually trusted. The pair gather Namor and the Silver Surfer (who seems to have the new ability to transform himself into snow, which seems gratuitous), and the Hulk explains that his anger and power have taken on their own form, a creature called Nul, Breaker of Worlds, which is the black creature we saw earlier. He’s come to the Defenders for help, but he can’t help himself since he could be sucked back into becoming part of it again.

None of the Hulk/Nul stuff makes much sense, either. I’d assume that Fraction is going to explain it all (How can the Hulk’s rage and anger become personified? Who’s behind it? How did the Hulk break away from it? How could he be sucked in again? Why hasn’t this happened before in the Hulk’s years of existence?), but it’s presented as a fait accompli and I don’t have a lot of faith that it will be explained. (Indeed, some of it should probably have been explained by the Hulk, himself, in this issue.)

Since the Hulk can’t go along, he recommends the Red She-Hulk pitch in instead. Red is Betty Banner (well, I guess she’s back to being Betty Ross now) for reasons I neither know nor care about (having lost interest in the recent “Red Hulk” stories after about 4 issues), and she’s something of a nonentity of a character here – charitably, I’d say she’s Marvel’s answer to Power Girl. (I always thought Ms. Marvel was Marvel’s answer to Power Girl.) And wait, if the Hulk can have his rage and power extracted into a separate entity, why couldn’t any other of the Hulks not have the same thing happen to them?

The team also brings in Iron Fist to provide transportation, since his alter ego of Daniel Rand is rich and owns a super fast plane. I find Fist’s portrayal here to be immensely annoying, as he’s something of a weenie geek who just wants to read comic books when more important things are going on. This doesn’t feel like Iron Fist’s character at all – it’s too cutesy, and not serious enough (hmm, just like Doctor Strange).

Anyway, the plane gets shot down, and the team gets ambushed. End issue one on this cliffhanger (well, with a little more thrown in, but that’s the bulk of it).

The story here is pretty pedestrian, but that’s not a crime. It’s tough to write a superhero comic that really breaks new ground. But the characterizations are really annoying. Only Namor comes out of the issues not seeming like a substantially different character than the one I’m used to, and that’s just bad writing. Maybe Marvel’s trying to mix up all their characters (in which case, I really have no interest in following them), or else Fraction’s just getting too cute with the characters, writing them the way he wishes they were rather than how they actually are. That my two favorite characters in the book – Doctor Strange and Iron Fist – are the most changed just makes it worse.

The Dodsons’ art is fine, of course. Ironically (given my earlier Power Girl comment), it seems like their style is evolving to look a little more like Amanda Connors’. The colors often seem a bit washed out, though, making many of the pages seem a bit flat.

But that’s not enough to make me want to keep reading. If issue #2 isn’t significantly improved then I don’t see myself continuing with the series. Which is too bad because I had been looking forward to this series, and this issue was really disappointing.

Legion of Super-Heroes: What Went Wrong

Legion of Super-Heroes #1-16, Annual #1, Legion of Super-Villains Special, by Paul Levitz, Yildiray Cinar, Francis Portela, Wayne Faucher, et. al., DC, 2010-2011

Following the reintroduction of the “classic” (and now adult) Legion of Super-Heroes in Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes and Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, Paul Levitz – who wrote the series briefly in the 1970s and then for most of the 1980s – returned to write a new series with the classic team, picking up from where those stories left off. Now, I wasn’t a fan of Levitz’ second, more celebrated run (he screwed up and killed off many of my favorite characters, which made the book a whole lot of Not Fun for me), but having enjoyed those two recent series, I was curious to see what he’d do here. I was impressed with the practical way he wrote off chunks of earlier continuity and started with the new status quo established by Geoff Johns, and the book was being illustrated by Yildiray Cinar, who I wasn’t familiar with but who has a clean, futuristic look to his art.

Unfortunately, the book never really gelled for me, and it’s been cancelled with #16, to be relaunched as two titles in the DC relaunch next month. What went wrong?

Fundamentally, what went wrong is that – as happened his last time around – Levitz gets too caught up trying to write the book like a soap opera, with lots of little plots running, each getting a small amount of attention in each issue, so it becomes hard to follow what’s going on, and the ultimate pay-off of each plot thread is too diffused to be satisfying. It’s as if the book is being written to minimize the dramatic impact.

Here are the stories Levitz crammed into the 18 issues of the series:

  1. Earth-Man joins the team (#1-7, 16): The villain of Superman and the Legion, Earth-Man is a Legion reject who became a xenophobic tyrant, and Earthgov forces him on the team for decidedly implausible reasons. His story is I guess supposed to be one of redemption, and he does make the ultimate sacrifice in the end, but sleeping with Shadow Lass and his overall attitude still point him as a bastard, and you never really root for him. This thread was ill-conceived and comes to a pointless resolution.
  2. The destruction of Titan (#1-5, 7): Saturn Girl’s homeworld is destroyed and her people are scattered across the cosmos. This is the genesis of the main story at the beginning of the series.
  3. Saturn Girl’s children and kidnapped (#1-4): And she steals a time sphere to pursue them, and ends up finding a cult devoted to Darkseid. (Darkseid is intimated connected to the kids, which would be intriguing if Darkseid were even remotely interesting as a villain. In fact his sell-by date passed over 30 years ago.)
  4. The mysterious Professor Li (#1-2, 4-5, 7, 11-16): A scientist at the Time Institute, who seems to know something about why Titan was destroyed. We eventually learn where she comes from, but honestly I couldn’t care less. She’s a pointless character with uninteresting mystery behind her.
  5. The next last Green Lantern (#1-7, 10-16): An entity named Dyogene decides someone other than Sodam Yat needs to become a Green Lantern to carry on the tradition. First it chooses Earth-Man, who rejects it, and then it chooses Mon-El, who accepts it for a while, and then steps down. There was never really any point to all of this, so I don’t see why Levitz bothered.
  6. The assassins from Durla (#2, 5, 7-10): Some shape-shifting assassins from Chameleon Boy’s homeworld come to Earth to punish the United Planets council for letting R.J. Brande die. This story suffers badly from being chopped up among multiple issues, and the capturing of the assassins and revelation of their identities is sapped of any dramatic impact.
  7. Saturn Queen and the Legion of Super-Villains (#2-3, LSV special, 11-16): Spurred by the destruction of Titan, Saturn Queen assembles a new Legion of Super-Villains, which dominates the last third of the series. Yes, another LSV arc, yawn. There’s a hint that she’s been used by a greater power to accomplish some mysterious goal, but the revelation of what’s going on is not really interesting. The best part of this arc is Saturn Queen’s imperious behavior, and her ally Lightning Lord chafing at taking orders from her.
  8. Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet go on holiday (#6, Annual #1): I guess some fans enjoy seeing the Legion’s lesbian couple, but since their heterosexual relationships of years past were the subjects of two of my favorite Legion stories, I’m not one of them. Still, the Annual, with the return of the Emerald Empress, and a check-in with Sensor Girl’s medieval homeworld, was one of the most entertaining issues of the series.
  9. Mon-El becomes Legion leader (#8, 10-16): Potentially an interesting story, especially since he and Shadow Lass have broken up and he seems adrift in his life, but it gets subsumed by the LSV storyline, and he becomes a Green Lantern too which additionally dilutes the story. Really a lost opportunity to work with the character, much as the Durlan assassins story was a lost opportunity to work with Chameleon Boy’s character.
  10. Star Boy returns (#11-16): Having been in a pointless exile in the 20th century for the last few years, Star Boy returns and somehow is a component in revealing the secret of Professor Li. Pretty much everything involving Star Boy and Legionnaires in the 20th century has been a storytelling disaster, and even thought this is a small piece of the series, I’m still scratching my head over why Levitz wasted pages on this. (And why is he wearing the stupid half-mask for much of the story, when he’s back with his friends in the 30th century, who all know who he is?)

So the stories didn’t work in two ways: Some of them were too diffuse, so it was difficult to keep track of what was happening in them, and some of them were too long, like the seemingly-endless throwdown with the Legion of Super-Villains (let’s fight this guy, now let’s fight this guy, now these guys, now these guys, and now let’s have a couple of big battles with everyone). I was not a fan of the Great Darkness Saga which was the keynote story of Levitz’ previous run, but at least it was a focused story in 5 issues, steadily building to its climax. But this series just thrashes around without seemingly knowing what it’s trying to accomplish or where it’s going. It was less than the sum of its parts.

The series also had the annoying gimmick of introducing every single character, every single issue, with their name, homeworld, and powers. It’s a crutch which quickly gets distracting. The Legion has decades of stories without this schtick, and it’s not like characters with names like “Sun Boy” and “Lightning Lass” really need this crutch.

To be sure, the art by the two main pencillers, Cinar and Francis Portela, is terrific, and almost makes the series worth reading by itself. (Cinar is pencilling the upcoming Firestorm series, and I’m going to pick it up mainly because of him.) But the stories, despite having promise, were just very poorly executed. Juggling the Legion’s large cast has chewed up plenty of writers, but keeping it simple and making the stories manageable, or focusing on just a few characters at a time, is usually the key. Levitz seems to have completely lost his touch in this regard, and the end of this series is a good time for me to stop buying the book until a writer whose work I’m more interested in comes on board.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger might be the perfect superhero movie (so far, anyway): It’s exciting, fun, has a hero who’s heroic but not perfect, and makes you feel for the characters. And it honors its source material rather than belittling it as many superhero films these days seem to (taking the source material seriously is a big reason why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are the best superhero films of the new century so far).

I get tired of movies always showing the character’s origin (previews in the theater showed the trailer for the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man, which looks like it will show Spidey’s origin again; really?), but Cap’s story is very well done here, and showing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – the prototypical 90-pound comic book weakling – and his determination to join the army to fight in World War II, his friendship with the much more physically-able James “Bucky” Barnes Sebastian Stan), and his recruitment by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to be the test subject for the super-soldier program are an essential part of humanizing Cap. Despite his frail physique, Steve never backs down from a fight, but when Erskine asks him whether he wants to go kill some Nazis, Steve’s character is summed up when he responds, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just hate bullies.”

One could do all sorts of between-the-lines reading about the jingoistic heroism of the film, but that would miss the point that it’s a World War II film named Captain America, and bringing 21st-century cynicism into it would miss the point of the film (I’m sure we’ll get plenty of that in next year’s Avengers movie). Instead, this is about a good, flawed man fighting the good fight for his friends and his country. Even the somewhat-painful scene of Cap being used as a showman to sell war bonds ultimately pays off when he has the opportunity to show his stuff and becomes the army’s secret weapon against Hitler’s mysticism-loving scientist, Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

While it won’t win any awards, the acting is surprisingly good for a superhero film. Chris Evans played the fun-loving Human Torch in the two unremarkable Fantastic Four films, but he’s a completely different character here. (If anything, I wish they’d processed his voice early in the film since its deepness and richness seems incongruous coming from his body when it’s been CGI’ed into Steve’s pre-treatment physique.) Weaving chews the necessary scenery as the Skull (though Toby Jones as his lead scientist, Arnim Zola, overshadows him at times with his Peter Lorre-esque performance), as does Tommy Lee Jones as the general overseeing Cap’s special forces unit. Hayley Atwell as Steve’s love interest Peggy Carter isn’t exactly the weak link, but she’s not given a lot to do – Dominic Cooper’s role as Howard Stark (father of the future Iron Man, I presume) is smaller, but he frequently upstages her.

The film looks good, too, a little grimy in the European war scenes, with flat colors in many of the New York street scenes, and bright colors at the World’s Fair and during Cap’s tour selling war bonds. The CGI in the action scenes looks fluid, although it still underscores how unnatural superhero fighting is, and what an accomplishment it was for Jack Kirby, et. al., to make it look natural in those old comic books. And the film neatly sidesteps one of my big gripes about superhero films, that they’re always contriving ways for the heroes to lose their masks so the stars can show off their real faces; the extensive focus on Steve makes it feel natural for Evans to appear as himself, but there are plenty of scenes with Cap as Cap.

The weakest part of the film is the Red Skull’s plot. He finds the Cosmic Cube (which in the comics allows a person’s wishes to become reality, but here is simply an über-energy source) and plans to use it to rule the world. He harnesses the power to create energy weapons, and plans to destroy yhe capitals of the major world powers, but since his men are unable to take on the U.S. Army even with their weapons, it’s not really clear how he plans to actually take control of the world, much less maintain control. The story would have made more sense if he were simply causing mayhem to further the conquests of Nazi Germany (in the comics, the Skull is an ardent Nazi and had the utmost respect for Hitler), but oh well. At least it’s a pretext for some lively action scenes.

Cap’s story is, ultimately, a tragedy, but the film ends without really exploring the depths of that tragedy. Presumably the plan is for the Avengers film to work through some of that, but I doubt they’ll really do it justice given the larger cast and the (presumed) need to fit some adventure story in there. (I think Avengers could be a fun film, too, but I think it’ll be easy for the story to get away from the writers and director if they’re not careful.) However, what we do see here is pretty effective.

Overall, Captain America is a really fun ride, only dragging in a few places, but otherwise engaging, action-packed, and even touching. Why can’t they all be like this?

Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff

Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff HC, by Peter David, Rich Buckler, Sal Buscema, Brett Breeding, Vince Colletta & others, Marvel, 2011

Creators can be a little frustrated when you point to an early work of their as your favorite. Naturally, they feel that they’ve grown and developed as a creator since their early stuff, and that their newer work is generally better. But while skills can improve with experience, sometimes other factors in an early work overwhelm the arguably-weaker craft that went into a work and make it the favorite of some of their fans.

So it is with me and The Death of Jean DeWolff, which is no-question, it’s-not-even-close, my favorite of all the works I’ve ever read by writer Peter David, yet it is (to my knowledge) his first published comics work. Some years ago I had him autograph my paperback collection at a convention, and I was a little put off that he sort of mumbled something I didn’t catch when I said how much I loved the story, and signed it with a Star Trek symbol next to his name (he was deep in the Star Trek era of his career, I think). Maybe he harbors some bad memories about the time he wrote Spider-Man, but perhaps more likely he felt a little awkward having a fan gush over his earliest work when he’s done so much more since then that he probably feels is more sophisticated and just-plain-better. I don’t know – I certainly wasn’t inclined to ask him at the time.

Nonetheless, here we are: I’m delighted to see that Marvel has given The Death of Jean DeWolff, in my judgment Peter David’s best work, the deluxe hardcover treatment.

Now, when this came out in 1985 I was not following Spider-Man, and even today I’ve never read another story with Jean DeWolff in it. Apparently she was a supporting character on the police force in Spidey’s books for a few years. But she was enough of a character in his life that when she’s brutally executed at the beginning of the story Spidey is motivated to help the police find the killer. Teaming up with wry police detective Stan Carter, he learns that a masked nut named Sin-Eater killed her, and is killing other prominent figures in New York.

While the mystery of the Sin-Eater’s identity is what initially drives the story, what makes it great is the conflicts the hunt imposes on Spider-Man: The Sin-Eater is all-too-willing to let loose with his shotgun in the middle of a crowd when Spidey’s after him, raising questions about whether Spider-Man’s partly responsible for anyone who gets hurt. (Similar issues come up in the real world when someone gets hurt when the police elect to engage in a high-speed chase.) Spidey’s fellow hero Daredevil, and his alter-ego of lawyer Matt Murdock, also gets involved when a friend of Matt’s is killed, demonstrating the contrast between the two heroes (at least, at the time): Spider-Man is a hero who works to do what’s right, but it basically a vigilante with something of a black-and-white outlook on justice, while Daredevil, who’s both a lawyer and is somewhat older and more worldly, has a more nuanced view, though one which sometimes conflicts with his own vigilante adventures. The two end up on opposite ends of a thorny ethical debate at the conclusion of the story which David handles deftly and satisfyingly. It’s a very emotional and human story, but one which would be difficult to tell with characters who weren’t masked vigilantes.

This story includes everything I most enjoyed about David’s writing: His humor is sharp and pointed, with few cheap shots, and his characterizations are vivid (several of Spidey’s supporting cast shine along the way). The plot is tight and there’s little wasted space or verbiage; the pacing is perfect, down to the issue-by-issue cliffhangers. The storytelling is helped considerably by Rich Buckler’s pencils; Buckler is something of a forgotten man in comics history, it seems to be, having been one of a number of Neal Adams-influenced pencillers (the best of them, really), but one who never illustrated any hugely popular stories. With terrific inks (mainly by Brett Breeding), he really shines here.

The one downside to this collection is that it left out David’s excellent foreword and afterward from the paperback collection (published in 1990). In particular, this paragraph has stayed with me:

[We] killed off a character who had a lot of potential. Readers couldn’t fathom why we did that, “Why kill off a character with whom you could have done so much?” Ah, but where is the dramatic impact in killing off someone with no potential? Someone who the readers are sick of? There’s no drama in that, no sense of “It might have been.” Death should be a tragedy, not a relief. Perhaps in a world where moviegoers laugh at innocent teens being slaughtered by masked madmen, that’s been forgotten.

That this story works so well even for me, who had no emotional connection at all to Jean DeWolff, both proves David’s point, and further illustrates how well he executed this story.

The new hardcover also has the 3-issue sequel to the original story (from 1987). I was disappointed in this story when it came out, in large part because it’s illustrated by Sal Buscema, of whose art I’ve never been fond (I always preferred his brother John’s style). But reading it today I think it works fine. Once more it’s about the consequences of power as wielded by Spider-Man, and about the demons that haunt a man who’s done terrible things, and whether he can ever truly be rid of them. As a sort of variation on a theme compared to the original, and bringing some closure to some matters left over from the first story, it’s a success.

This is one of the great superhero comics, and a high point for a character who’s seen plenty of them in the last half-century. Seize this opportunity to check it out.

The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde #1-4, by Cole Haddon & M.S. Corley, Dark Horse, 2011

Since Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen came on the scene a decade or so ago, there’s been a steady stream of victorian and early-20th-century comic books plumbing the depths of public-domain characters from that era. While LoEG has gotten byzantine to the point of being tiresome (the series’ “easter eggs” have overwhelmed what little story remains, as Chris Sims’ review of the second volume of Century describes), other stories have been worth the effort. I’ve particular enjoyed this little Dark Horse mini-series, The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde.

On the face of it, it’s not a terribly clever premise: There are so many real and fictional characters lurking around late 19th century Europe that we’ll probably see every possible combination of them eventually. This one is Jeckyll-and-Hyde and Jack the Ripper, but it’s done well.

Inspector Thomas Adye (a fictional character, as far as I can tell) is assigned to the Ripper case, but he enlists the help of Dr. Henry Jeckyll to help profile the killer. The problem is that Jeckyll is himself stashed away in a dank prison, after his exploits as the dangerous Edward Hyde some years earlier.

Jeckyll’s descent into depravity is shown in little pieces and in flashback, just enough to show how he was once a good man but is now a calculating lunatic. He’s a much stronger figure than the character in LoEG. Adye is also a strong character, but a bit naive and credulous, just enough so to be taken in by Jeckyll’s tantalizing promises, but also mistrustful of his superiors and feeling he needs Jeckyll to crack the case. And crack the case the pair ultimately does, but with some consequences for each of them.

Corley’s art complements Haddon’s story quite well. He has a clean style, a bit stiff at times, but a good portrayal of the period elements. I occasionally had trouble telling Jeckyll and Adye apart, as the two are each clean-shaven, brown-haired men, but that aside Corley has quite a range of facial expressions. Hopefully this is only the beginning for him.

Naturally, there’s a collection coming out. Check it out if you can’t find the individual issues.

Doctor Strange: Into the Dark Dimension

Doctor Strange: Into the Dark Dimension HC, by Roger Stern, Peter B. Gillis, Paul Smith, Bret Blevins, Mark Badger, Terry Austin & Steve Leialoha, Marvel, 2011

Roger Stern was one of the best writers in comics in the 1980s (he’s still good today, as his Captain America mini-series supplementing Ed Brubaker’s regular series show), and his 4-year run on Doctor Strange was his very best work (it was published bimonthly from 1981-1985 – remember when comics companies used to do that?). So it’s terrific to see Marvel reprint the end of his run in this handsome hardcover volume.

A brief recap: Doctor Stephen Strange was a brilliant but egotistical surgeon before a car accident wrecked his nerves, so he could never operate again. Wandering the Earth in search of purpose, he met The Ancient One, an eastern mystic who eventually took Strange as his apprentice. In the ensuing years, he grew to become Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, and master of the mystic arts, operating out of New York’s Greenwich Village to defend the world against mystical threats.

While many previous creative teams (Lee & Ditko, Englehart & Brunner, etc.) had written fine Strange stories, Stern topped them all, by mixing the cosmic with the personal. Strange became a richly characterized human being, as he lost his apprentice and lover, Clea, when he became romantically entwined with another woman, and he gained friends and allies on his adventures as well as in his household (his manservant, Wong, and his accountant, Sara, developed a romantic attachment). He had some pretty great artists, too, starting with Marshall Rogers, then Steve Leialoha, and then Paul Smith, the main artist in this volume.

This story opens with a story in which Strange helps Dane Whitman, The Black Knight, throw off his family’s curse, but the story quickly shifts when Strange realizes that Umar, the ruler of the Dark Dimension, has decided that he is masterminding the rebellion against her rule. He’s not, Clea is in fact behind it all, but her persistent attacks on him force him to take the fight to her. It’s a terrific story in which we see Clea develop more fully as a character, and with a satisfying victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat ending. The story showcases Strange’s humanity and empathy, a man who wields immense power, but who does so with conscience and wisdom. Other writers have often heavy-handedly returned to Strange as a man who achieves catharsis and enlightenment through his experiences, but Stern goes beyond that to show him as a fully mature, rounded individual, a man who still has personal and external challenges to face, but who is as much a role model as any of the mainstream superheroes who live in the spotlight that he avoids.

Stern is ably assisted by Paul Smith’s art. Smith had developed considerably from his earlier work on X-Men, but was not quite as fantastic as he would be later on The Golden Age. His stuff is nonetheless terrific. Bret Blevins does a pretty good job of aping his style in a single-issue story (itself quite good) prior to the main arc. All of their work looks terrific in this reprint, and the coloring is bright and vivid, complementing their styles perfectly.

Stern unfortunately left after the next-to-last issue collected here, and Peter B. Gillis – the series’ next regular writer – wrote the code to the Dark Dimension story, illustrated by Mark Badger. Badger’s sketchy (if not downright muddy) layouts and pencils have never appealed to me, and Gillis always seemed a very dark writer whose characterizations seemed a bit too simplistic, his stories a bit too convoluted. It’s a disappointing ending to the volume (plus it tied in to the lousy Secret Wars II series Marvel was printing at the time), and I’ve always wondered why Stern departed so abruptly.

That aside, the overall package is wonderful. I highly recommend giving it a try, and if you like it, go back and try out the rest of Stern’s run (mostly quite affordable in your back issue bins), starting with Doctor Strange vol 2, #48, and running through #67 (the last issue before this volume). There are many great issues in there, and I guarantee you’ll love it.

Thoughts on the DC Comics Reboot

The big news in the comic book industry this week was DC Comics’ announcement that it will be rebooting its universe and relaunching most of its titles with new #1 issues (52 new first issues, making me wonder – snarkily – if there will be one for each universe in its current multiverse). Presumably this relaunch is being explained in story terms due to the current event series Flashpoint, in which the DC Universe as we know it has been altered into a twisted version of itself, and that the untwisting will cause everything to be different.

As a longtime reader of DC Comics, I don’t have a strong reaction to this. My first thought is, “This is what they should have done in 1986 after Crisis on Infinite Earths!” In 1986 I was reading almost every title that DC printed (I was also 17 years old), and would have been very excited if they’d done something like this. (I’ve heard that they considered it but that editorial got cold feet and couldn’t pull the trigger.) 25 years later, this feels like little more than a gimmick, one tacked on to what was originally pushed as a Flash-centric event series. Now it feels like Flashpoint was just a means to reboot the continuity, which feels like it cheapens the story.

(I wonder if DC was emboldened to make this move by the success of 2009’s Star Trek film, which did the same thing for that franchise.)

It also makes the next few months worth of DC Universe titles feel irrelevant, too. J. Michael Straczynski – who has recently been pilloried for leaving the Superman and Wonder Woman titles in mid-story – had words in a similar vein on his Facebook fan page:

So I felt confident that it was coming soon (which is one reason why I felt there wouldn’t be a problem in the long run leaving the monthly books, since most of the things done in Superman and Wonder Woman would be erased by the reboot anyway, so ultimately it didn’t matter whether I stayed or left). I just couldn’t say anything at the time because I wanted to respect Dan’s privacy and his desire to do what he thought was right when he thought it was right to do it.

Superman and Wonder Woman are wrapping up major story arcs, the three Green Lantern titles are in the middle of a major crossover story, “War of the Green Lanterns”, the Batman status quo has been upset by Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc. set-up, and various developments have occurred due to Brightest Day. Now, all of these stories may have been good reads in their own right, but for people who care about the ongoing story developments, that means that everything that happened in them will now be swept away?

That’s another way in which events like this support my maxim that “a good jumping-on point for new readers is a good jumping-off point for old readers.” I’ve been losing interest in the Green Lantern titles since the plot has been getting ever-more grandiose and the character elements are vanishing, so this makes the reboot an excellent time for me to drop those books.

As far as whether I’ll buy any of the new first issues, what I usually do is follow the creators: I’ll buy the books by writers I like (and artists I really like, although even the presence of George Pérez wasn’t enough to persuade me to buy the Flashpoint tie-in mini-series Secret Seven this week), and probably pass on the rest unless the premise of one sounds unusually interesting. But I’m not going to pick up, say, a new Hawkman or Aquaman series just because. Of the first ten series announced, I might pick up Firestorm (Gail Simone, Yildiray Cinar), but that’s about it (I’ll stay far away from Flash, as I cannot stand Francis Manapul’s art these days).

I’ll also likely pass on the previously-announced Justice League title by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, as I’m not really a fan of Lee’s art, and I find Johns’ writing to be increasingly pedestrian these days. (Johns and Lee on Justice League is about twenty steps down from Kurt Busiek and George Pérez on Avengers a decade ago.) Honestly the only books Johns has written that really stand out in my mind are his first Flash run (with Scott Kolins and Howard Porter), and his Booster Gold run.

So my reaction to all of this on the creative side is basically one of “whatever”. When they announce that Ed Brubaker or Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid or a writer I similarly admire is writing one of the new titles, then I’ll be excited. Otherwise it’s just more superhero comics, reboot or no reboot.

If they’re really going to relaunch the industry’s long-standing titles – Action Comics and Detective Comics – with new first issues, that’s a little sad (Action just hit #900, and it’d be neat to see it hit #1000 in about 8 years without ever going through a numbering change), but I have no doubt that many books will revert to their historical numbering for their next major milestone issues (et tu FF, née Fantastic Four?).

Buried in the announcements – but called out by a few bloggers – was the parallel announcement that DC would be releasing new comics digitally on the same day of the print release. (For some reason they’re calling this “digital day-and-date”, which must be some term I’ve just not heard before, but it sure sounds stupid. “Day and date”? What would “day or date” be? What about just “day”? They couldn’t call it “same day” or “simultaneous digital release” or something clearer?) This makes various people happy or mad depending (as far as I can tell) on their take on whether digital comics indicate the impending doom of print comics or not, and whether they think that’s a good thing.

I have little interest in digital comics myself, though I expect that over the next 20 years or so we’ll see the monthly comic industry (mostly) die in favor of digital comics. Whether I’ll go along to the new medium I don’t know – I probably will, although I’ll likely still prefer print comics (after all, I know I’ll be able to read print comics in 40 years; whether any particular digital format will still be supported then, who can say?). It is interesting to see DC so fully embracing digital comics; whether their major competitors other than Marvel can keep up will be a good question, since if this move spells death for any of Dark Horse, Image, IDW, and the like, that’s a good thing for DC. It’s a bad thing for readers, of course. Though there’s plenty of innovation going on in the really small presses, not to mention in the webcomics community, arguably more than we see from any of the major comics companies, so for people like me motivated to seek out good reading material, I’m sure it will always be out there. Just in a different form – and maybe not from your local comics shop.

Ultimately, I think that where printed reading material is concerned, we really are entering a singularity: I don’t think anyone can truly say what the book and comic industries will look like in 20 years. Maybe it’ll be all digital, maybe it’ll be mostly digital with a smattering of print companies and stores mostly for collectors (this is my guess), maybe the digital and print industries will coexist in similar sizes and compete with each other. 20 years is a long way out, and we’re at the very beginning of the transition. But I would not be at all surprised to see 50% or more comic book stores go out of business within 10 years. (Sad, but not surprised.)

Lots of people are predictably cynical about this. I’m trying to be realistic rather than cynical (although I am cynical where DC’s editorial direction is concerned; annual crossover events tend to do that to me). Ryan, the owner of the comic shop I go to, Comics Conspiracy, is pretty excited, though, and is a bit disappointed in some of his fellow retailers:

It's so, so sad to see so many retailers freaking out about the DC news. This is a golden opportunity for us, I'm really disappointed.

People fear change. People especially fear change that threatens to disrupt their livelihood. I bet a few retailers would say that Ryan is a brave man to embrace it.

I agree with Ryan that the reboot is a big opportunity for retailers – but in the short term. I can also understand Brian Hibbs’ reaction, which seems centered around “Holy crap! 52 first issues in one month?” But this is an opportunity to try to bring in some new readers in the back third of 2011. After that, though, I don’t have a lot of confidence in DC to be able to actually take their line anywhere, or let their better creators follow through on their own visions. DC’s been flitting from crossover event to crossover event for a decade now, and the company has seemed to just be meandering around like some kid with ADD in a store full of shiny objects. Will anyone care about the reboot a year from now? Will it have made any difference? How about 2 years from now?

The long-term aspect of this announcement is how digital downloads will change the industry – and the publishers’ dispositions to the direct market – over the next decade. That’s where the big changes are going to come. And whether that will be a golden opportunity for retailers remains to be seen.

This Week’s Haul

It’s the last comics haul of 2010! And… it’s the last entry in this series I’m going to do. I’ve been writing this column almost-weekly for over four years, and my enthusiasm for it has flagged over the past year. I’ve decided it’s time to turn my attention to other things and not worry about getting in a column each week. I hope those of you who have followed my ramblings have enjoyed them. I do plan to write about comics from time to time, but probably in a different format.

  • Action Comics #896, by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods (DC)
  • Green Lantern #61, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #46, by Marc Guggenheim & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #4 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Kaare Andrews (Marvel)
  • Captain America #613, by Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Stefano Gaudiano & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. #5, by Jonathan Hickman & Dustin Weaver (Marvel)
  • Echo #27, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Hellboy: The Sleeping and the Dead #1 of 2, by Mike Mignola & Scott Hampton (Dark Horse)
  • The Royal Historian of Oz #3, by Tommy Kovac & Andy Hirsch (SLG)
I’ve been reviewing each issue of Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis mainly because Kaare Andrews’ covers have been so awful – comically so, really. But this cover is not bad, even if it is another take on the old “warrior with babe hanging onto his leg” image.

Warren Ellis’ story is gelling into a new reworking of Alan Moore’s great Captain Britain storyline involving Jim Jaspers, a mutant who can bend reality, the Furies, unbeatable killing machines, and Warpies, mutant-like babies with destructive powers. Other than tying into his invention of universe-hopping Ghost Boxes, Ellis hasn’t really done much very new with the pieces; an army of Furies is even more unbeatable than the original one was, and it’s kind of amazing that none of the X-Men have been outright killed as yet. And it’s hard to see exactly how the story’s going to wrap up in just one more issues.

Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men run has been fairly interesting, and it feels like it’s gradually building towards something, but it’s been very frustrating that it’s been so plagued by delays. I don’t know if it’s Ellis’ scripts running behind, or the musical chairs among the artists, or that all of the artists have fallen behind, or if editorial is just asleep at the switch (or doesn’t care), but this run really needed to stay on a decent schedule to work. Long delays are a good recipe for fan apathy, and it’s hard for me to work up much enthusiasm for what Ellis is doing here anymore.

Strangely, this month’s Captain America is “The Trial of Captain America” part three, and yet the cover (at left) says “It begins!” Huh? The cover is accurate, since the actual trial starts in this issue.

Those details aside, it’s another good issue. The Red Skull’s daughter throws a big wrench into the works of the defense, in a typically Brubakeran clever way – she planned ahead. (If you think about it, in comics villains are proactive and heroes are reactive.) I’m not quite sure how Cap’s going to get out of this one, especially since the usual comic book cliché of doing a good deed so that all is forgiven is just not Brubaker’s style. Brubaker’s probably got more tricks up his sleeve, though. (Of course, the most straightforward solution to the problem – that Cap, currently Bucky Barnes, was a foreign agent during the Cold War – is to find a former-Soviet official who can actually testify that Cap was brainwashed into acting as the Winter Soldier. In some ways that seems too simple, yet in others it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do, in keeping with Brubaker’s writing style.)

All things considered, I think Steve Rogers is more interesting as Cap than Bucky is, but I’m not sure where Bucky really fits in in the modern Marvel universe otherwise. No doubt Steve will take up the mantle again eventually, though.

Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. has been getting good word-of-mouth, but I’ve found it pretty tedious. It’s a combination shadow history/conspiracy book: S.H.I.E.L.D. has been around for thousands of years protecting the world against amazing threats (like Galactus). In the 1950s, a young man named Leonid is being inducted, but his father, the Night Machine, tries to stop it. He in turn is stopped by Howard Stark and Nathaniel Richards, and the three disappear. Leonid then learns that he’s in the middle of a power struggle between S.H.I.E.L.D. leaders Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci, both of whom (along with Nostradamus) seem to be immortal.

Aside from feeling that another “everything you know is wrong” story set in the Marvel Universe seems like overkill, the presence of all these real-life figures, still living centuries after their supposed deaths, seems basically ridiculous. Basically the series hasn’t sold me on any of its core elements, and the story itself has been pretty ponderous.

That said, this issue is better than the ones that have gone before, as we find that Stark, Richards and the Night Machine have been thrown hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where Earth seems to be devoid of humanity. But they come across the remnants of a city (beautifully depicted in a 2-page spread by Dustin Weaver) strongly reminiscent of the age of Rama-Tut (one of the Fantastic Four’s old foes). Of course, it’s not entirely clear how this diversion fits into the main story, but it is the most gosh-wow moment in the series so far. (It has an appearance at the end by someone whom I infer is Snowbird of Alpha Flight. And the revelation that the Night Machine is in fact Nikola Tesla, which is rather less cool a fact.)

The rest of the issue furthers Leonid’s introduction to the Newton/Da Vinci backstory, as well as filling in some of Stark and Richards’ backstory. Decent enough stuff, but still a lot more telling than doing, which is standard for this series. Overall S.H.I.E.L.D. could be really good, but it would have to be really different for that to happen. Unless all of this is the barest introduction to a long arc – which picks up fairly soon – I expect I’ll get bored and drop the series. (And it’s even slower than I’d thought, because it’s being published bimonthly!)

I picked up the first two issues of The Royal Historian of Oz at the SLG booth at APE in the fall. Although I’m hardly an Oz fanatic, I enjoyed the Baum books when I was a kid, and I’ve enjoyed some of the spin-off titles that have been published in the last 20 years. (Indeed, I think they’re a strong argument for letting creations fall into the public domain once their creators die.) I think my favorite was Oz Squad, which started as a dark take on the series (Tik Tok comes to Earth and his morality spring runs down, causing him to become a psychopath, and the “original four” Oz characters have to take him down and bring him back), but toned down the darkness in later issues in an entertaining time travel story.

Royal Historian takes place in a dystopian future in which Jasper Fizzle writes new Oz stories (despite having no talent), and is branded an outlaw by the keepers of Oz lore. But then Jasper finds a way to get to Oz itself, and brings back some of its wonders to put on display. His son, Frank, is the book’s hero, having been embarrassed by his father’s obsession, but then amazed at what Frank brings back from Oz. However Frank is then captured by Ozma and her citizens to be held hostage until Jasper returns the items he’s stolen.

This issue focuses on Frank’s reactions to actually being in Oz, and takes the interesting approach of overwhelming him with characters in very short order – also overwhelming me, the reader, as I don’t remember half the characters who show up here. Jellia Jamb I kind of remember, but Button-Bright? The Glass Cat? At first I found it too much to take in, but then I figured that was kind of the point: Given Oz’s substantial backstory and large cast, a real person being thrown into it might be similarly overwhelmed. Kind of clever, if that’s what writer Tommy Kovac intended. After a mishap in the castle, Frank is sent with the Tin Woodsman to live in the countryside, where he gets a more measured exposure to some of the wonders of Oz.

The story has been a little slow so far, but it’s getting more entertaining now that we’re in Oz and not on the dreary Earth that Kovacs and artist Andy Hirsch have come up with. Hirsch has a cartoony style (somewhat similar to that of Rob Guillory on Chew), but his panels are pretty complex. It’s always interesting to see how different artists take on the Oz characters, and Hirsch makes the Scarecrow look kind of creepy, while the Woodsman is downright inhuman, albeit likable in his way.

I think the biggest drawback to the book is that few characters in it are likable: Jasper is a talentless obsessive, and now a thief. Frank is a bit of a blank slate, largely defined by his frustrating with his father. Most of the Oz characters shown in this issue seem mentally unbalanced at best, and as creepy as the Scarecrow in many ways. The book really needs Frank to become better-defined and his own man. Otherwise it’s hard to find someone to root for, or a cause I can believe they’d get behind. If the creators keep publishing (always a risky proposition for small-press comics) and can work out some of these issues, then this could be a lot of fun. But it’s not there yet.

That’s all for this year! Thanks for reading!