Category Archives: comic books

Today’s Super Comic — Iron Man #1 (1998)

Every so often, a long-running comic book series just needs to get back to the basics…and Iron Man definitely needed that by the late ’90s.

Marvel killed Iron Man a few years earlier and replaced him with a teenage version of himself from an alternate timeline. Then that teen version died along with the rest of the Avengers in the “Onslaught” crossover, leading to the Heroes Reborn stunt in which popular Image Comics creators reimagined and relaunched the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Captain America, and Iron Man in a separate, new continuity. Then a year later, after that had run its course, those characters were restored to the proper Marvel Universe and relaunched with new first issues.

Seemed like as good a time as any to have the real Tony Stark return. The details are sketchy as to why and how the adult Stark returned rather than the teen version…and I’m okay with that. Why dig the hole any deeper? The creative team had an opening to efficiently get back on track, and they seized it in the relaunched Iron Man #1.

Of course, Tony Stark can’t just waltz back from the dead and reclaim his company as if he hadn’t been killed and replaced by his younger self for a while. A competitor had bought out Stark Enterprises, so the big question for the first issue is…will Tony try to reclaim his company? Or will he start something new?

The script by Kurt Busiek gets at the heart of the character. Tony Stark is always trying to build both himself and the world around him into something better. Here, he needs to figure out how best to do it.

Oh, and an unseen old foe wants to kill him. Got to have that physical peril thrown in there, too.

A fine restart all around, and a much-needed one at the time.

Writer: Kurt Busiek

Penciler: Sean Chen

Inker: Eric Cannon

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up

Today’s Super Comics — The Golden Age #1-4 (1993-94)

The Golden Age has a reputation as being Watchmen-lite, but I have to disagree. The two miniseries share some surface similarities. They both examine old-school mystery men through a more adult lens, and Cold War paranoia factors into the plots. But whereas Watchmen deconstructed the genre, The Golden Age also reconstructs it.

After World War II, the members of the Justice Society of America, as well as most other masked heroes, go their separate ways to lead normal lives, with varying degrees of success. Writer James Robinson puts the focus squarely on the people behind the masks, fleshing out characters who had received little development previously.

It’s a large cast, mixing recognizable characters such as the original Green Lantern and Hawkman with obscure ones such as Captain Triumph and the Tarantula. Prominent roles also go to Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Hourman, Starman, the original Atom, Robotman, Johnny Thunder…and so many more. In all cases, the miniseries humanizes them and makes each character its own. This isn’t some company-wide crossover with a million guest stars shoehorned in; rather, it’s a complete story that designs each character to serve the larger arc.

The former Mr. America turns to politics, becoming a senator and spearheading a new program of government-backed superheroes with open identities. The new age requires a new type of hero, one without masks or secrets, and answerable to his country. But, of course, the people claiming to have no secrets are the ones with the most to hide.

The climactic action pulls the superheroes and mystery men of yesteryear out of their retirements or semi-retirements. They leap into action, functioning as individuals but showing no regard for their individual well-being.

And the action is incredibly well-choreographed, with lots of characters having specific, important beats to play out. Artist Paul Smith draws it all fluidly, incorporating the best elements of 1940s comic book art—particularly the rough-hewn, innocent purity of amazing super-feats—and tempering it with modern layouts and expressive faces.

The story breaks down these classic characters, but then builds them back up into heroes, showing how they’ll always be needed, no matter how times change. It strips away their innocence, reveals their flaws, and makes their heroic actions all the more meaningful.

Writer: James Robinson

Artist: Paul Smith

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; JSA: The Golden Age (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 15 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Batman #232 (1971)

How to introduce a new Batman villain? Hide him in plain sight.

Ra’s al Ghul gets a distinctive introduction in Batman #232, an issue Batman: The Animated Series adapted over twenty years later.

Robin the Boy Hostage is kidnapped. Then a mysterious man moseys on into the Batcave, claiming that his daughter Talia—whom Batman had recently met—has apparently been kidnapped by the same people.

It opens up a unique Bat-villain dynamic from the start. In a (by comic book standards) subdued bit of macho posturing, this guy has deduced Batman’s secret identity before ever meeting him and immediately brandishes this knowledge as his “hello.” And then he proceeds to lead him around the globe so Batman can find a kidnapper who’s standing right next to him the whole time. But Batman’s one step ahead of him…because he’s Batman.

The whole thing is a test, which brings us to the next reason Ra’s isn’t like all the other bad guys. Batman isn’t just a potential enemy—he’s a potential son-in-law and successor.

We don’t learn everything about Ra’s in his debut issue, but we don’t need to be inundated with all details at once. Slow introductions are often better; we can appreciate the various facets as they slowly emerge. So much more interesting than an info-dump, and it saves surprises for future issues.

For now, we get a clear sense that Ra’s is cunning, resourceful, and used to getting his way. A successful hook. Objectively successful in hindsight, given that he’s been a major foe ever since and Liam Neeson played him in a movie11.

Also, this issue is written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams—two of the people responsible for rescuing Batman from his campy phase. That was one trap he couldn’t escape on his own.

Writer: Dennis O’Neil

Penciler: Neal Adams

Inker: Dick Giordano

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Batman: Tales of the Demon (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Uncanny X-Men #201 (1986)

Many superheroes have lost their powers in various storylines, and that includes many X-Men. Usually, it’s presented as an obstacle interfering with an immediate goal, and it’s a solid trope—it shows the hero is more than his or her powers. But the best examples of the trope have also used it to further develop characters, to provide consequences beyond the immediate short story.

Storm lost her powers for a few years’ worth of X-Men comics. She took the bullet for Rogue and then had to figure out how to reinvent herself without the abilities that had defined her for so long. More than most X-Men, her powers affect her personality; in earlier days, she would often repress her emotions because of how her feelings affected the weather around her. She was already beginning to loosen up before this event (see the mohawk), but this pushed her further into new territory.

By Uncanny X-Men #201, she was ready to return to the X-Men, despite the continued absence of her powers. Meanwhile, new father Cyclops isn’t quite ready to leave the team. He obviously should leave to concentrate on his young family, but Professor Xavier’s recent departure and Magneto’s recent arrival as the New Mutants’ new headmaster give him an excuse to try to cling.

But Storm knows Cyclops is in no shape to lead the team at the moment, so she challenges him to a Danger Room duel, with the stakes being leadership of the X-Men. And she prevails, demonstrating the better wisdom, temperament, and physical fitness for the job, even without the aid of powers, and she reminds us why she’s perhaps the X-Men’s most formidable leader.

Storm’s power loss did prove her skills beyond controlling the weather, but it also humanized her. She could no longer be the aloof goddess of her earlier appearances, and her disconnection from the weather put her more in tune with the people around her. And when her powers inevitably did return, those lessons remained in effect.

The X-Men’s success isn’t hard to figure out. The characters grew over time, and their growth kept things interesting and fresh. The Storm and Cyclops facing off in issue #201 aren’t exactly the same people who first met ten years earlier in Giant-Size X-Men #1, but they’re10 consistent with everything that’s come before.

Writer: Chris Claremont

Penciler: Rick Leonardi

Inker: Whilce Portacio

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Essential X-Men Vol. 6 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Fantastic Four #67-70, 500 (2003)

Doctor Doom finally figures out how to one-up Reed Richards in Fantastic Four #67-70 and 500. And yes, those numbers are correct. Marvel likes to have it both ways with numbering—reboot for a new #1 to designate a jumping-on point, then revert to the original numbering for anniversary issues.

Anyway, there’s one subject area where Reed is in over his head. He can’t comprehend magic. The world’s smartest man is an idiot when it comes to sorcery. But Doom understands the fundamentals, and as the son of a gypsy, it’s an established part of his heritage. So in his ongoing quest to humble Mr. Fantastic, Doom rejects science in favor of magic and strikes at the Fantastic Four through their children.

There are no higher stakes than imperiled children. Not even saving the whole world or universe reaches that level, because the scale is too grand to remain relatable. But your kids are in trouble? We can all understand that terror.

The script by Mark Waid nails the characterization of both Doom and Reed, particularly how arrogant they can both be. The storyline shows how they’re perfect antagonists for each other. They reflect each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and their conflict has always been personal. Appropriately for an anniversary issue, there’s history here, and the feud escalates to the next level.

Marvel has published many superb Fantastic Four stories over the decades, and this is in the top tier. And it begs the question—why isn’t Marvel currently publishing Fantastic Four comics?

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 11 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Avengers #144 (1976)

A former romance comic protagonist becomes a superhero in Avengers #144. Or she gets the super-powered costume, at least.

The Avengers, with tagalong Patsy Walker, had been captured by the Squadron Supreme (Marvel’s stand-ins for the Justice League, but evil). This issue sees them trying to escape the Brand Corporation complex—and being a fictional corporation, you can safely assume it’s up to no good.

The fun comes from the interplay between the characters, with the highlight being the casual camaraderie between Captain America and Iron Man. But the big development arrives when longtime superhero fan Patsy gets a chance to become one herself, despite the objections of her protectors. It’s a wish-fulfillment moment free of angst or melodrama, and it introduces an upbeat heroine to the Marvel Universe. You know right away that Hellcat will add something fresh to the mix. (And yes, Patsy is the comics version of the character we saw in Jessica Jones on Netflix.)

Meanwhile, other Avengers wrap up a storyline set in the Wild West. All sorts of craziness can peacefully coexist in Marvel Comics.

The issue is an excellent reminder about how innocently fun comics can be.

Writer: Steve Englehart

Penciler: George Perez

Inker: Mike Esposito

Cover: Gil Kane

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Essential Avengers vol. 7 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 8 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Incredible Hulk #271 (1982)

My year of daily positive comic book reviews is almost up! The final ten reviews begin here! (Not top ten; the randomness continues.)

In the comics, the original Guardians of the Galaxy had an entirely different lineup from the movie cast, and the film’s characters all had separate comic book introductions. Rocket Racoon debuted in The Incredible Hulk, in an issue that’s so delightfully ridiculous.

Hulk finds himself transported to an alien world, where he’s greeted by a talking racoon and walrus. The racoon totes a laser gun, and the caption introduces him as “Rocket Racoon, guardian of the Keystone Quadrant” (still working his way up to guarding a whole galaxy).

And if his name reminds you of a certain Beatles song, that’s apparently by design. The issue title, after all, is “Now Somewhere in the Black Holes of Sirius Major There Lived a Young Boy Name of…Rocket Raccoon!” Plus, the plot entails a Gideon’s Bible, and Rocket has to save his girlfriend Lylla.

In addition to the Beatles references, we’ve got killer clowns, deadly rabbits, and Keystone Quadrant Kops. The main villain is a mole.

The issue shows how comics work wonderfully as a vehicle for unbridled imagination. Sure, this isn’t sophisticated literature, but consider it from the perspective of a kid reading it in 1982. It’s creative fuel for a young reader. In retrospect, the issue reminds us that not all comics need to grow up. Providing goofy fun for kids is always a worthy cause.

By the way, contrary to his cinematic counterpart, here Rocket self-identifies as a racoon.

Writer: Bill Mantlo

Penciler: Sal Buscema

Inker: Jim Novak

Cover: Al Milgrom

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 8 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Powers #1 (2000)

For a stellar example of how to properly introduce readers to a new fictional world, see Powers #1 (the original).

Powers is a police procedural in a world of superheroes and villains, known as “powers.” The initial run of issues was excellent (I eventually lost track of the series due to that whole “I can’t read everything” problem).

The debut issue eases us in while immediately hooking us. We meet one of the two leads, Detective Christian Walker, as he’s negotiating a hostage situation, one where the criminal specifically requested him for reasons initially unknown. We hear both sides of the conversation, but the panels show only Walker’s side of a closed door—so right from the start, there’s more going on than we see. And it pays off with a nice reveal.

The other lead, Detective Deena Pilgrim, is also introduced in a visually one-sided conversation. She’s telling an entertaining anecdote to someone we don’t see, and the true punchline occurs as the subtext becomes text.

Brian Michael Bendis’s organic dialogue, as “directed” by Michael Avon Oeming’s art, carries us through the issue. Everything flows smoothly, and background details help build the world. No expository backstory bogs down the pace. They wisely save that for later. The goal of a first issue is to make us care, and that’s where they succeed.

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis

Artist: Michael Avon Oeming

Publisher: Image Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — DC Comics Presents Annual #2 (1983)

No Superwoman has ever really taken off. There have been several, and DC currently has a Superwoman title starring Lois Lane and/or Lana Lang (I haven’t been keeping up with it). The ’80s had its own Superwoman, though, and she debuted in DC Comics Presents Annual #2.

This Superwoman didn’t last long. She never even made it out of the decade, as far as I’m aware, but her introduction is solid. The issue came out at a time when comics straddled old-school and modern sensibilities. Residual Silver Age goofiness lingered, but the overall tone was growing up. The result was books like this one. It packs in plenty of imagination and excitement while putting a stronger focus on character and plotting, and it never tries to be “adult” in any immature, “edgy” way.

Writer Elliot S. Maggin reintroduces us to a character who first appeared in his 1981 Superman novel, Superman: Miracle Monday. In her comics debut, Kristin Wells, a 29th century history professor, travels back in time to uncover the secret identity of Superwoman, the last 20th century superhero whose true name remains unknown. She catches up with her old friend Superman, who’s never met any Superwoman. A powerful alien menace strikes, and no Superwoman comes to Superman’s aid. So who on Earth could she possibly be? I wonder.

It’s light, a little silly, and very fast-paced, but it’s also charming and engaging throughout, making fun use of assorted sci-fi and comic book tropes. If anything, though, it works too well as a complete story. The protagonist’s arc reaches a strong conclusion. She solves her mystery, grows, and returns home with a new perspective. While she’s perfectly likable, there’s nothing to launch us into subsequent stories about her.

But as a single-issue story, it’s an excellent example of early ’80s DC upping its game.

Writer: Elliot S. Maggin

Penciler: Keith Pollard

Inker: Mike DeCarlo

Cover: Gil Kane

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Detective Comics #784-786 (2003)

Some of the best team-ups seem totally random at first and totally complementary in retrospect.

An excellent example occurs in Detective Comics #784-786, which pairs Batman and the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott. This GL debuted back in the 1940s, long before the Hal Jordan version and the spacefaring Green Lantern Corps. DC’s continuity in 2003 had cast Alan as one of the elder statesmen of the DC Universe, essentially the Superman of the Justice Society, and circumstances (mystical, if I recall correctly) had kept him physically in his prime.

Another aspect of the canon at that time: This Green Lantern was Gotham City’s first superhero.

Batman and GL had never teamed up on their home turf, but when a homicide mimics a cold case from Green Lantern’s past, they’ll work in tandem to solve the crime (while a retired Commissioner Gordon, well utilized here, pieces together the clues on his own).

The bright shining knight of the past and the dark knight of the present create a strong visual contrast, and writer Ed Brubaker goes beyond that surface image. In a refreshing shift from his recent jerk trend, Batman displays genuine respect toward the elder superhero, and it’s earned respect. Batman knows his own motivation stems entirely from tragedy, but Green Lantern is a born hero, doing good just because.

GL’s not perfect, though, and the entire situation is a consequence of his lack of perfection. It’s a compelling mystery, not so much in the whodunit sense but in the “why did they do it” sense. And along the way, the story shows us characters who are all too aware of their own limitations.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Penciler: Patrick Zircher

Inkers: Aaron Sowd and Steve Bird

Cover: Tim Sale

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up