Monthly Archives: March 2017

Today’s Super Comic — DC: The New Frontier #3 (2004)

DC: The New Frontier puts the Martian Manhunter to excellent use—in my opinion, his best ever, which the book accomplishes by going back to the character’s core concept.

There’s a lot going on in issue #3, including perhaps too much exposition, and we check in with quite a few characters. The standout moments involve J’onn J’onzz as he continues adapting to his new life on a new world, among people he fears would fear him if they knew what he truly was.

A newsreel of the newly formed Challengers of the Unknown plants the seed of an idea—perhaps the good J’onn can do isn’t limited to his work as police detective John Jones. But then an encounter with a distrustful Batman, who knows his weakness, reminds him of everything he has to fear.

Though the Martian’s presence on Earth isn’t public knowledge, the U.S. government is aware that the alien is out there somewhere, prompting a mission to Mars to determine whether the planet is a threat. That mission, still in the works, has recruited Col. Rick Flagg of the so-called Suicide Squad and Hal Jordan—two men both psychologically scarred by previous wartime experiences.

And that’s the true brilliance of the story, which can appear rather episodic at first glance—it explores the balance between fear and courage, and paranoia and aspiration. The various threads all tie into that central theme somehow. The theme is perfect for the superhero genre, and it especially fits the characters of J’onn J’onzz and Hal Jordan—the former because of his “stranger in a strange land” status, and the latter because of his reputation for fearlessness that’s always begged the question of what’s motivating that bravery.

Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in DC: The New Frontier Volume One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — DC: The New Frontier #2 (2004)

The second issue of DC: The New Frontier continues setting the mood in this 1950s reimagining of the DC Universe, and it’s an opportunity to admire Darwyn Cooke’s art as being among the greatest of his generation. His work synthesizes various classic elements into something that feels familiar but also new, fresh, and exciting.

Superman looks like he flew out of a 1940s Max Fleischer cartoon. Batman wears the original Bob Kane design, rendered by way of a Bruce Timm Batman: The Animated Series influence. Wonder Woman lacks a quintessential cartoon version, which allows Cooke to put more of his own stamp on her design. In an inspired touch, he makes her a true Amazon, taller than even Superman.

The Flash is a kinetic figure with a large head to denote his scientific intellect. J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, appears unsettling and creepy but without any malice in his native form, and his human form, Detective John Jones, is the archetypal movie detective.

The events are fairly episodic at this point, but they tie together thematically, all pointing toward changing times. The Martian Manhunter, ripped away from Mars, is trying to fit into a new world. Superman and Wonder Woman verbally spar over newfound ideological differences, not unlike how they did in Kingdom Come. Batman begins to realize that his appearance is frightening to more than just criminals. The Flash is still adjusting to his new powers and new super-heroic lifestyle.

And Hal Jordan, our ostensible protagonist, has difficulty readjusting to civilian life after the Korean War, and his guilt over killing an enemy soldier drives him to take the sort of fearless risks that will soon get him noticed by a certain intergalactic police corps, one with an affinity for emerald jewelry.

If you’re a DC fan, this series is a love letter to all your favorite characters (including many I haven’t mentioned here), and the early Cold War setting grounds it with substance.

Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in DC: The New Frontier Volume One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — DC: The New Frontier #1 (2004)

DC: The New Frontier is the late Darwyn Cooke’s magnum opus, and it’s masterful indeed. And it’s worth taking it one issue at a time. So on to #1…

The series chronicles the dawn of a new heroic age, but that age hasn’t started yet in the first issue, which takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Thanks to McCarthyism, the mystery men and superheroes of World War II and “the Golden Age” have been mostly outlawed, and a relative handful remain to carry on the fight with the blessing of the U.S. government (most notably Superman and Wonder Woman).

In the real world during this time, DC Comics was between super-heroic eras. Superheroes started falling out of favor once the Nazis were defeated, and other genres dominated the medium for several years (western, romance, etc.).

Fittingly, then, the first scene features the final mission of the Losers, a group of non-powered military characters who debuted in the late ‘60s in a war comic book series set in WWII. In this book, they find themselves in a land of prehistoric creatures, and they never leave. In a particularly memorable splash panel, the final Loser leaps willingly into the mouth of a tyrannosaurus rex with live grenades to take the beast down. And with that, an era ends.

Shortly later, the book asks, “”What type of person—what new breed of hero would have the character and daring to lead America to the edge of this new frontier?”

We meet Hal Jordan, the future Green Lantern, first as a boy and then as an Air Force pilot serving at the end of the Korean War. Cooke makes an excellent decision to spend time getting to know Hal pre-GL, fleshing him out into a fully rounded character.

Here, Hal distinguishes himself by his refusal to kill, even during war. He’ll serve his country, but he won’t kill for it. Then, in a visceral scene, he discovers what he would kill for—his own selfish survival. He encounters an enemy soldier who doesn’t realize the war has just ended, and the situation quickly progresses to “kill or be killed.”

The scene plays out in a way that punches you in the gut, and the tragic result will inform Hal’s motivation for the remainder of the series.

This is definitely a book to savor, for the story as well as the art.

Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in DC: The New Frontier Volume One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Watchmen #9 (1987)

Watchmen is undeniably an artistic achievement. With complex plotting and depth of characterization, it’s a novel in comic book form, likely the first comic book series to fit that description.

Though an admirable work, it’s not all that enjoyable. Produced toward the end of the Cold War, and set in an alternate version of it, the book can be pretty bleak at times. (Spoilers ahead…you’ve been warned…) The climax involves the world’s smartest man tricking the world into behaving itself, so that doesn’t exactly put forth an optimistic view of humanity.

However, issue #9 uses that darkness to show how miraculous each human life inherently is. The chapter reaches an oddly uplifting ending, despite the dark revelation that precedes it.

In television terms, the issue is almost like a “bottle episode,” if the bottle can be all of Mars and if flashbacks are allowed. Written by Alan Moore, the entire issue is a conversation between the god-like Dr. Manhattan and all-too-human Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk), in which the latter must convince the former that humanity is worth saving. Dr. Manhattan is doubtful, finding the complex Martian environment infinitely more fascinating and majestic than people.

But as Laurie reaches an uncomfortable epiphany about who her father is, and as she wonders if her life is some cruel joke, Dr. Manhattan has his own epiphany:

“Thermo-dynamic miracles…events with odds so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing.

“And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter…

“…until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold.

“That is the crowning unlikelihood.

“The thermodynamic miracle.”

Watchmen is detailed and layered enough that you’ll notice something different every time you read it. But that passage jumped out at me the first time I read the book, at 16 or so, and it continues to hold up as the high point of the series. Amid pervasive hopelessness, it’s a thing of beauty.

Writer: Alan Moore

Artist: Dave Gibbons

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Watchmen (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — Captain America #37 (2008)

Dayyy-umm, what an excellent series this is.

Yes, I know—that was the height on intellectual literary criticism. I’m a bit pressed for time.

Captain America #37 begins the third trade paperback collection of the “Death of Captain America” arc, so we’re back to some rising action. The Falcon expresses his skepticism about the new Captain America to Tony Stark and the new Cap himself, Bucky Barnes, and these scenes are especially interesting in hindsight considering that Falcon (Sam Wilson) is the current Captain America substitute.

But the scenes are strong in their own right, adding tension and casting doubt as to whether Bucky can succeed as Captain America. As another former partner of the original Cap, Falcon is certainly qualified to have an opinion.

Falcon isn’t the only doubter—we get a nice little Hawkeye appearance, too, giving the new Cap a hard time, kind of like how he often gave the old Cap a hard time back in the day.

And if that all isn’t enough reason to keep reading, the cliffhanger involving Sharon Carter will do the trick.

Dayyy-umm indeed.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Artist: Steve Epting

Cover: Jackson Guice

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Captain America: The Death of Captain America vol. 3 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Black Panther #1 (1998)

I’ve been meaning to read this series for years. About time I got around to it.

Black Panther was one of the four series that launched the Marvel Knights imprint (the most famous of the bunch being Daredevil). Written by Christopher Priest, this series would go on to receive considerable acclaim, telling some of the greatest, or at least most distinctive, Black Panther stories ever, according to critics. It’s too soon for me to verify that claim, but issue #1 gets off to a compelling start.

We learn about the Black Panther, King T’Challa of Wakanda, through the eyes of an ordinary State Department employee. This guy, Everett Ross, is tasked with accompanying T’Challa during the latter’s visit to the United States to investigate a scandal involving one of his charities. Ross describes his Panther-related misadventures to his boss, but he does so out of sequential order—a fun narrative trick that tells us early on this isn’t going to be your typical comic book series.

Ross’s immaturity, as well as his general state of being in over his head, makes him a great foil for the stoic, dignified Black Panther, even though they so far have little direct interaction on the page. Ross not only contributes a sense of humor to the book, but his shortcomings help enhance T’Challa’s regal stature. A guy who basically belongs in a sitcom is our viewpoint character into the life of king who happens to also be an Avenger. It’s an inspired approach.

And the focus on Black Panther’s role as a foreign monarch is exactly right. That’s what sets him apart from his fellow Avengers and gives him a unique point of view and source of motivation.

I’ll have to continue reading.

Writer: Christopher Priest

Artist: Mark Texeira

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Vol. 1

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comics — JLA #43-46 (2000)

In which it’s confirmed that the Justice League’s most dangerous member is…Batman.

Mark Waid took over the writing on JLA with #43, and he kicked off with a superb four-part storyline that pitted the team against Ra’s al Ghul at his smartest. Ra’s, with his focus on reducing the global population in order to “save” the planet, is a great choice for a JLA foe, and his scheme here is a clever one—broadcasting a signal that interferes with the brain’s ability to comprehend the written word and, later, the spoken word. Rid humanity of language, and the resulting disasters will thin out the population in no time.

He knows beforehand the JLA will oppose him, and he’s not overly familiar with most of the members, except for Batman. And he’s well aware of Batman’s weaknesses.

The plot gets going right away when Bruce Wayne discovers his parents’ coffins have been stolen, which is a perfect way to keep Batman distracted for a while. Then Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia and his men proceed to enact Batman’s emergency protocols against each member of the JLA, one at a time. Turns out Batman has maintained files on how to non-lethally incapacitate his teammates, such as dosing Aquaman with a fear toxin to make him terrified of water and making the Martian Manhunter flammable. Secretive soul that he is, Batman has neglected to ever mention this project to any of his teammates who have placed their trust in him.

That’s the true brilliance of Waid’s story—the main obstacle to thwarting a global threat is a protagonist’s own fatal flaw. It’s a great way to keep character at the center of the story without interfering with the stars’ respective solo series.

And didn’t I just recently say that Batman was a jerk during this time? See?

Writer: Mark Waid

Pencilers: Howard Porter and Steve Scott

Inkers: Drew Geraci and Mark Propst

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Detective Comics #745 (2000)

The various Batman titles found renewed focus and creativity after the lengthy “No Man’s Land” arc (and during it, as I covered a few days ago). The different series had basically melded into a weekly book during that saga, but each one reclaimed a distinct identity afterward.

Detective Comics, naturally, focused on Batman as a master detective—an important facet of the character that’s much harder to pull off than the standard super-heroic action/adventure, and therefore much more rewarding when it’s pulled off well. And writer Greg Rucka pulled it off brilliantly, aided by excellent artist Shawn Martinbrough and an interesting coloring scheme.

During this period, the creators opted to forgo the full range of colors and cast the book in black, white, shades of gray, shades of red, and various flesh tones. It was a clever decision that gave the book a unique visual identity, and it served the somewhat noir-ish tone (Bat-noir?). The reds pop off the page, making every appearance of blood all the more striking and every scarlet sky just eerie enough.

The story is solid and well thought out. Issue #745 is in the middle of the first storyline, and Gotham City has recently reopened for business—including criminal business, of course. We meet a new villain, Whisper A’Daire, who’s making moves among the city’s most and least respectable residents. She’s somehow associated with Ra’s al Ghul, and for some reason part of her skin has scales. And she’s already arranged to have people killed. So basically, the world’s greatest detective has work to do.

Writing and art joined forces to create a memorable era for Batman and Detective Comics, one that struck a mature tone while keeping everything PG-13.

Writer: Greg Rucka

Pencilers: Shawn Martinbrough and John Watkiss

Inker: Steve Mitchell

Cover: Dave Johnson

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Fantastic Four #64 (2003)

Love and mathematics save the day in Fantastic Four #64, and that’s basically the Fantastic Four in a nutshell.

One of the reasons why Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s Fantastic Four run works so wonderfully is because they focus on the FF as a family, and they do so without skimping on the imaginative action/adventure. Other super-teams might be like a family, but the FF legitimately are one.

And in this issue, the family dynamic plays into the plot. Reed and Sue’s young son Franklin accidentally creates a sentient mathematical expression while fiddling with his father’s advanced computer because he was trying to make himself smarter so his parents would love him more. The sentient expression wants to use Reed to create a balanced equation, so it attempts to “subtract” everything and everyone from his life until they are equals.

Math is not for the faint of heart.

Yes, it can be a little goofy, but it’s also genuinely heartfelt and relatable. That’s the balance a great Fantastic Four story strikes (and one none of the movies managed).

Writer: Mark Waid

Penciler: Mike Wieringo

Inker: Karl Kesel

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Fantastic Four by Waid & Wieringo Ultimate Collection, Book 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — X-Men #133 (1980)

I just saw Logan, and it was amazing—a bit of a downer in some ways, but a fantastic, character-driven movie. So let’s look back at a much more upbeat comic from when creators were just beginning to realize Wolverine’s potential.

X-Men #133 is in the middle of the Dark Phoenix Saga, one of the all-time great comic storylines. The previous issue ended with the Hellfire Club capturing the X-Men after having seduced Jean Grey to the dark side. There was one X-Man they didn’t capture, though—one they assumed they managed to kill by sending him plummeting down through several floors and into the sewer. Silly villains.

But of course they didn’t kill Wolverine. They just made him mad, and in #133, the X-Man’s lone wolf has to fight his way through innumerable minions, without any scrupulous teammates to hold him back. It’s the sort of thing the comics medium conveys very well—awesome character being awesome as he tries to save his teammates.

And meanwhile, old-school villain Mastermind continues his mind games against the X-Men, particularly Cyclops and the brainwashed Phoenix. The whole issue is great, but it’s really Wolverine’s time to shine. He’s still largely a blank slate at this point in the character’s history, but a strong foundation is being laid.

So watch the excellent movie, and then look back at the character’s formative years that made that excellent movie possible.

Writer: Chris Claremont

Penciler/Co-Plotter: John Byrne

Inker: Terry Austin

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga (TPB); The Essential X-Men vol. 2 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up