Monthly Archives: March 2017

Today’s Super Comic — Runaways #12 (2006)

In which Wolverine gets punched out by an 11-year-old girl. And that pretty much sums up how fun this Runaways storyline is.

Issue #12 concludes a four-parter that brought the West Coast teens to New York City. Cloak & Dagger, Marvel’s original teenage runaways, need help. Cloak has been framed for attacking and hospitalizing Dagger, and the Avengers (I mean New Avengers) are after him for questioning. The Runaways (though they don’t actually call themselves that) pursue the actual assailant in a new-to-them setting.

Here, the Marvel Universe serves as a playground for the reader, but the book never neglects its main characters. Writer Brian K. Vaughan continues to deepen and flesh out each character while teasing future plots, building something new within an existing framework. He already did the hardest part by successfully introducing an entirely new cast of characters into the MU and getting readers interested. By this point, creative momentum is working in the book’s favor.

And it’s a joy to read.

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Penciler: Adrian Alphona

Inker: Craig Yeung

Cover: James Jean

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Runaways vol. 5: Escape to New York (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Captain America #48 (2009)

In order for the reader to care about the plot, the characters need to care about the plot. Yeah, that’s a pretty basic observation, but it’s an essential ingredient. And Captain America #48 provides an excellent example of how it works.

An unscrupulous scientist seeks to eradicate about 35 percent of the world’s population—for the good of the planet, of course. To achieve this, he’s used the remains of the original Human Torch to create a virus, one that renders its victims combustible. (Marvel’s first Human Torch was an android who debuted in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939; no relation to the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch.)

That’s all a good start. It raises the stakes by putting the fate of the world in the balance. But that alone would be too big and too impersonal. We’ve seen the fate of the world imperiled time after time in comics. We need a personal connection.

In this case, Bucky Barnes fought alongside the Human Torch in World War II. They were colleagues and friends, and those were happier times for Bucky, before he was forced to become the Winter Soldier. Bucky already lost Steve Rogers not long ago, and now another friend’s memory and body are being disrespected. Bucky is fighting not only to save the world, but also to preserve the honor of a man he respected more than just about anyone (other than Captain America, of course).

Joining Bucky in this mission are Namor the Sub-Mariner (another WWII ally) and the Black Widow (his current girlfriend). They represent his past and present, and they both have their own personal reasons for getting involved.

Not that anyone should need a personal motivation for saving the world, but it makes for a much more interesting story.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Pencilers: Butch Guice, Luke Ross, Steve Epting

Inkers: Butch Guice, Steve Epting

Cover: Steve Epting

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Captain America: The Man With No Face (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Sandman #41-49 (1992-93)

Ironically, the most linear Sandman story arc is the one that co-stars Delirium. It’s also my favorite.

Among his many strokes of brilliance in Sandman, writer Neil Gaiman not only created a personification of dreams, but he also gave that character a family in grand mythological fashion. The Endless comprises seven siblings: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (formerly Delight). Each has a distinct, vibrant personality, and the interplay between them is always fascinating.

The family dynamic comes into play in “Brief Lives” in issues #41-49, in which Delirium recruits Dream to search for long-lost Destruction. It’s a classic quest plot starring two totally opposite personalities. But a simpler structure doesn’t mean less depth—each issue remains intelligent, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

If you haven’t read Sandman in its entirety yet…why not? Your only excuse is if you’re under 18. In that case, yeah, wait a bit.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Penciler: Jill Thompson

Inkers: Vince Locke and Dick Giordano

Cover: Dave McKean

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Sandman vol. 7: Brief Lives (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — Ultimate Spider-Man #5 (2001)

I’ve heard people complain that origin stories are boring. That’s a misleading statement, though. How characters gain their powers generally isn’t all that interesting. Why they decide to use those powers to help others…that’s the interesting part. That’s when the characters are at their most dynamic.

Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider is a utilitarian plot device. At best, it qualifies as an attention-getting inciting incident. But Peter deciding not to stop a thief, and that thief then murders his uncle, thereby supplying Spider-Man with motivation for all future stories? That’s the compelling part.

When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original story ran in Amazing Fantasy #15 back in 1962, it packed a surprising amount of depth for an eight-or-so-page comic story. In 2000-01, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley expanded it to six issues for the inaugural storyline of Ultimate Spider-Man, which gave us a modern teenage Spidey free from any continuity baggage (until the Ultimate line amassed its own messy continuity, that is, but Spider-Man had the only series that remained strong throughout).

The story deserved this expanded retelling. The extra length allows us to spend more time on each significant moment, and issue #5 depicts the defining night of young Peter’s life. He’s just learned his Uncle Ben was murdered, but his recently acquired powers allow him to at least apprehend the killer.

Bendis and Bagley take us from Peter’s anger, to his shock at recognizing the killer, to his anger at himself, to his guilt, to his understanding of what his uncle was always trying to teach him, and ultimately to a heartrending final page. Peter wasn’t Spider-Man in the first four issues; he is by the end of this one. The creators utilize the extra space to such superb effect, it makes it all the more impressive that Lee and Ditko nailed the story in so few pages all those years ago.

Whether told in eight pages or more than a hundred, Spider-Man’s origin story holds up as among the greatest—not because of any sci-fi spider bites, but because he learned a life-changing lesson through tragic failure.

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis

Penciler: Mark Bagley

Inker: Art Thibert

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 1: Power and Responsibility (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Wonder Woman #10 (2007)

Yesterday, I discussed a time Superman resorted to killing the villains and then had to work through his guilt. Now it’s Wonder Woman’s turn.

Leading into the 2006 DC crossover Infinite Crisis, Wonder Woman snapped the neck of an unscrupulous man with mind-control powers, a man who proved himself capable of controlling no less than Superman himself. She saw no alternative; others, particularly Superman and Batman, disagreed. Given her Amazonian heritage, killing a relentless threat seemed a viable option. Though she felt justified, she took a break from her Wonder Woman role for a year and was only just getting back into it when novelist Jodi Picoult began her five-issue stint on the title.

Picoult’s brief but solid run concluded in Wonder Woman #10, which pits Diana against her mother Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The Amazons are waging war against Washington, D.C., and Diana’s refusal to side with them disappoints her mother greatly.

Mother issues have been a part of the Wonder Woman mythos since early on. After all, one of the staples of her origin involves Diana disobeying her mother’s wishes to compete in a tournament to journey to man’s world. Putting Diana and Hippolyta on opposite sides of a major conflict, and having them fail to live up to each other’s expectations, feels inevitable and earned. And in viewing her mother in a new light, Wonder Woman is also able to view her own past actions through a new lens—particularly her execution of a villain.

I haven’t read the storyline this leads into, “Amazons Attack,” though I recall it being critically panned. Nevertheless, the set-up works wonderfully as a conclusion to the previous arc, and it allows Wonder Woman to discover a bit more about who exactly she’s supposed to be.

Writer: Jodi Picoult

Artist: Paco Diaz

Cover: Terry and Rachel Dodson

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Wonder Woman: Love and Murder (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Adventures of Superman #445 (1988)

One of the many things the Man of Steel movie got wrong was having Superman kill the bad guy, feel bad for a whole half a second, and then happily move on with his life.

In a late ‘80s storyline, Superman was left with no recourse but to execute three Kryptonian criminals who had destroyed an alternate Earth in a pocket dimension. His actions were justifiable—these powerful criminals would have no doubt turned their attention to the real Earth, they already had a track record of success in their genocidal pursuits, and there was literally no one else left in that other universe to mete out punishment. Still, while he did what he had to do, he knows he failed to be Superman in that moment.

The Adventures of Superman #445 is right after that storyline, and we see Superman appropriately wracked with guilt. There’s no tidy resolution yet—he’s got a long soul-searching journey into space still ahead of him before he comes to terms with his actions. For now, Braniac provides a distraction, though the battle shows how even a Man of Steel can fray.

I wouldn’t want a guilt-ridden Superman as the status quo, but the storyline showed us a different side of him while reinforcing one of his essential characteristics—his deep respect for all life.

Also, #445 shows how the Superman comics of this era made great use of the supporting cast. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and Cat Grant all are all involved in various plots and subplots (primarily Jimmy and Cat in this issue), and their presence keeps Superman tethered to humanity, which is also essential.

Writer/Penciler: Jerry Ordway

Inker: Dennis Janke

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Batman #329 (1980)

Batman: The Animated Series got many things right (pretty much everything, come to think of it), but the series’ most important strength was its characterization of Batman and his various foes. The Batman we saw in that cartoon most closely resembles the Batman of the 1970s and early 1980s, before some writers felt the need to justify his crimefighting lifestyle by making him seem borderline insane or just plain rude. Batman can be driven without being a jerk.

Batman #329 is a good example, in which we see Batman going above and beyond to not merely apprehend Two-Face, but also to try to save his soul. Batman remembers his friendship with Harvey Dent, and he believes there’s still a good man trapped beneath those scars, a good man who just needs help getting free.

Which brings us to another facet the animates series got right—some of Batman’s villains have villains of their own. Another person’s criminal actions push them off the deep end into villainy. Evil deeds beget evil deeds. This doesn’t let the villains off the hook for their crimes, but their own victimization creates sympathy and opens the door for possible rehabilitation down the line, if only they’d get out of their own way.

Two-Face falls into this category. As a crusading district attorney, he ended up a casualty in the war against crime, scarred both physically and mentally by one of the criminals he was trying to put behind bars.

That’s always added extra depth to the best Batman vs. Two-Face conflicts, and in #329 we see Batman allowing himself to be captured in a courtroom and held at the point of a gun so he can try to remind Two-Face of who he used to be. Dent’s ex-wife Gilda joins the effort, forcing Two-Face to choose between her and his coin—the sort of binary choice Two-Face would normally love, but one where his coin will be of no help.

This issue was not among those adapted by the animated series (as far as I recall), but it feels like it would have fit right in. It certainly captures the spirit of a heroic Batman who wants to save everyone, including his enemies.

Writer: Marv Wolfman

Artists: Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

Cover: Jim Aparo

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — New X-Men #117 (2001)

Apparently, the first X-Men movie reminded Marvel that Xavier was supposed to be running a school for gifted youngsters, not merely sheltering a team of superheroes trapped in an infinite loop of melodramatic soap operas. Granted, the soap opera approach served the X-Men extraordinarily well at times, resulting in some of the greatest superhero comics ever printed.

But by 2001, yeah, it was time for something different. So along came writer Grant Morrison with a fresh tone and fresh energy. X-Men became ­New X-Men, and it earned that adjective, by gosh and by golly.

Issue #117 is early in the run, though not too early for a major status-quo shift to already have taken place. The world now knows Xavier and his students are mutants, and if you know anything about the X-Men, you know how positively thrilled folks are upon hearing the news.

It’s a great development, though. The X-Men have been a metaphor for persecuted minorities since day one, but being able to easily pretend they’re not mutants doesn’t do the metaphor justice.

Also welcome is the fact that the school is actually a school for more than five people. Xavier’s mansion has extras in the background. The X-Men have expanded from a family into a community, and the main characters have actual jobs—teaching these kids.

Those main characters are also changing. The Beast gets the most focus in this issue. His mutation has evolved, or perhaps devolved. Instead of being a blue, furry man-ape, he’s now a blue, furry man-feline. It’s quite an adjustment, and there’s a lot of pain behind his jolly demeanor.

Meanwhile, Jean Grey is feeling increasingly detached from her husband Cyclops, who seems to be drawing the attention of Emma Frost, the formerly villainous White Queen, so Jean starts flirting with Wolverine, who we all know has been in love with her since the good old days. Yeah, you can’t totally extract the soap opera element from the X-Men. It’s infused in its DNA.

But there’s more going on, and none of it feels like a rehash of your favorite childhood X-stories. It’s exactly what the X-Men needed at the time. (Well, they didn’t need to trade their colorful superhero costumes for lots of black…or maybe Hollywood said they did need to.)

Writer: Grant Morrison

Penciler: Ethan Van Sciver

Inker: Prentiss Rollins

Cover: Frank Quitely

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in New X-Men by Grant Morrison vol. 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Wonder Woman #601 (2010)

This may have been one of the shortest-lived reboots ever, but it was certainly interesting. Writer J. Michael Straczynski reinterpreted Wonder Woman by stripping her of her past and setting her on a quest to rediscover herself and her heritage.

Paradise Island has apparently been destroyed, and the survivors have fled in various directions. It’s up to Diana to find and protect them. But as of Wonder Woman #601 (the story’s first full part), she’s hardly a hero—she’s a vengeful woman on a mission. We get some foreshadowing of her inner Wonder Woman potential, but growth and change are required to get her back to that point. With this, Straczynski has turned a decades-old character into a dynamic character. It’s quite a feat.

Oh, and she gets pants. That was long overdue (and also short-lived, alas).

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski

Penciler: Don Kramer

Inker: Michael Babinski

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Wonder Woman: Odyssey vol. 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Justice #1-12 (2005-07)

Classic super-heroic action gets a paint job in the miniseries Justice. It’s the Justice League of America vs. the Legion of Doom with painted art by Alex Ross, so you know it’s going to be a visual treat.

While there’s a lot to love, the art is the star here, as it lends suitable grandeur to some of the most recognizable superheroes and villains (and plenty of lesser-known ones). Story-wise, each character is true to his or her essence, and heroes and villains both get the attention they deserve. Plus, there’s no elaborate continuity bogging things down. If you haven’t read a DC comic in years, you can pick this up and your inner child will have a grand time.

And after you read, you can go back and admire the meticulous craftsmanship apparent in each panel.

Writer: Jim Krueger

Painter: Alex Ross

Penciler: Doug Braithwaite

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Justice volumes 1-3 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up