Today’s Super Comic — X-Men #123 (1979)

Fun fact: Colleen Wing, whom you may have met in the new Iron Fist Netflix series, briefly dated Cyclops of the X-Men. Yep—Colleen Wing and Scott Summers. That was a thing for a few seconds a long time ago, during the first interval in which Scott believed Jean Grey was dead.

The Marvel Universe can be a small world indeed, as shown in X-Men #123, which begins as Spider-Man just happens to run into Scott and Colleen strolling along the streets of New York. If your characters are going to share a fictional universe, why not have fun with it? And these sorts of quick guest appearances helped develop the MU as a setting worth visiting—you never knew who you were going to run into (well, unless they announced it on the cover so they could boost sales).

So Spider-Man, Cyclops, and Colleen Wing walk into the panel (or swing in)…and a kidnapping sets the plot in motion. This issue begins a two-parter in which the villainous Arcade captures the X-Men and a few friends and traps them in Murder World (it’s like Disney World, but the attractions try to kill you).

It’s a fun premise that splits up the X-Men and throws them into various death traps. But surviving is only half the battle! They’ll then have to navigate this maze, find their way back to each other, and rescue their friends from a sociopath.

It’s good times. Another classic from the Claremont/Byrne era. (I dare you to find one bad issue from that run. Just one. Can’t do it, can you?)

Writer: Chris Claremont

Penciler/Co-Plotter: John Byrne

Inker: Terry Austin

Publisher: Marvel Comics

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

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Daredevil #82 (2006)

Then there was that time Daredevil went to jail…and it was kind of justified, actually.

Ed Brubaker took over as Daredevil’s writer beginning with #82, and he picked up right where predecessor Brian Michael Bendis left off. Bendis shook things up quite a bit over the previous few years by giving Daredevil a secret-identity crisis. Matt Murdock was outed as the Man Without Fear, but in the absence of definitive proof, he was able to get away with the reliable tactic of deny, deny, deny…until he couldn’t.

So Murdock’s behind bars in the same facility as the Kingpin and many others he’s put away throughout his career. Issue #82 begins with him in protective custody, as he is legally a blind man, but you get the feeling that’s not going to last long. Meanwhile, Daredevil is running around Hell’s Kitchen beating up bad guys. Wait, what?

It’s a gripping scenario, one that does something different with a character who had been around for over forty years at this point. As you’d expect from Brubaker, the writing is tense, intelligent, grounded, and better suited for older readers, and Michael Lark’s art is a natural fit, the gritty style setting exactly the right tone.

Daredevil as a prison show…and it works wonderfully.

Really, though—lawyer by day, vigilante by night? As much as I love the character, Murdock has broken the law numerous times over the years, so it’s fitting that his hubris earns him some comeuppance. It may have taken four decades to get here, but this was a Daredevil story that needed to happen. The events feel earned.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Artist: Michael Lark

Cover: Tommy Lee Edwards

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Daredevil by Ed Brubaker & Michael Lark Ultimate Collection – Book 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 15 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Runaways #5 (2005)

There’s certain rite of passage every young superhero must go through in the Marvel Universe: confronting Doctor Doom.

The Runaways have met a fellow super-powered teen, Victor Mancha, who might be destined to become evil and might be the son of a major super-villain. In #5 (vol. 2), they have to save Victor’s mother from one of those potential fathers, leading to a fun match between a bunch of relatively inexperienced teenagers and the Fantastic Four’s greatest enemy.

And then the book tops itself with a superb twist and, as usual, a great cliffhanger…so not even a Doctor Doom battle is the high point here.

It’s just a consistently fun series that has a blast playing in the Marvel Universe sandbox.

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Penciler: Adrian Alphona

Inker: Craig Yeung

Cover: Jo Chen

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Runaways vol. 4: True Believers (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — DC: The New Frontier #6 (2004)

DC: The New Frontier ends with a rousing action sequence and a JFK speech (the latter is where the series got its name from, after all). And it reminds you why you love superheroes in the first place.

Throughout the previous five issues, we’ve seen the hopes and fears of various characters, but in #6, when a powerful menace threatens the entire world, it’s time to set aside all personal issues and do what’s right. It’s superheroes in their purest form.

Flash and Green Lantern get the most attention here, as both learn to think bigger and push themselves further. Ultimately, the world is saved because two men, acting bravely and selflessly, perform feats they had never previously attempted. The time for angst and introspection has passed—it’s time to be adults and get the job done. And, ironically, they’re at their most adult when they act the most like childhood fantasy heroes. No reason maturity can’t be brightly colored.

I’m reminded of the Muppets. Yes, Muppets. When you’re a young child, the Muppets are hysterical. When you’re a teenager, it’s all, “Oh, I’m too old for that kid stuff.” Then as an adult, that becomes “You know what? I like the Muppets. They amuse me, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

And that’s basically what The New Frontier is saying, but with superheroes. It recaptures the fun of watching purely heroic characters saving the world, and it gives you permission to enjoy it without shame. And it encourages you to aspire to greater heights yourself.

Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke

Publisher: DC Comics

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

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — DC: The New Frontier #5 (2004)

In the penultimate issue of DC: The New Frontier, a powerful threat makes itself known…and folks step up. Whereas the previous issue showed the fear holding everyone back, issue #5 shows characters moving forward, even in the face of the unknown. And things are beginning to look a lot more Silver Age—appropriately enough, as this miniseries is a reimagining of that era’s dawn.

Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern origin story gets a retelling here, and it drills deeper into Hal’s head than the original 1959 comic did. His joy shines through, especially with writer/artist Darwyn Cooke’s clean, classic style, and it’s pure fun watching him fly for the first time (without a plane, that is). But the scene fits thematically with the larger work—the ring provides a focal point for the bravery that was always there, even as Hal had been doubting himself.

The Green Lantern power ring becomes a metaphor. Push away the fear, and you can soar—you can perform all sorts of phenomenal feats.

Also of note, Superman gets his big hero moment, by way of showing inspirational leadership to the rest of the cast.

But the series is called DC: The New Frontier, not Superman: The New Frontier. So Supes can’t do it alone.

On to the final issue…

Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke

Publisher: DC Comics

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

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — DC: The New Frontier #4 (2004)

Things tilt toward paranoia and fear in DC: The New Frontier #4. The government’s attempt to abduct the Flash sends the speedster into hiding. Wonder Woman has retired to Paradise Island. J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, decides to hitch a ride back to Mars. And Hal Jordan is scrubbed from that same Mars mission (though that’s against his will).

But amid the fear, acts of heroism shine through. J’onn J’onzz gets a great one, which leads to a turning point for a character who has spent the series concealing his true nature for fear of how he’ll be treated. And his fear is hardly baseless, given what happens to a black vigilante named John Henry who tries to strike back against the KKK. And John Henry’s tragic situation reminds us about the need to be better than we were.14

Darwyn Cooke’s story makes excellent use of DC’s shared universe. These characters aren’t just inhabiting the same world—they’re affecting each other within it. When Flash publicly calls it quits, J’onn makes up his mind about trying to return to Mars, and his means of departure is the mission Hal’s involved in.

Characters and situations connect in an organic way, a thematic way, but not a “Look how cool—it’s, like, all connected, man” way.

Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke

Publisher: DC Comics

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

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Titans #6 (2016)

My DC: The New Frontier reviews will take a quick intermission, because I just picked up the trade paperback for the new Titans series and it was pure fun.

A large part of the appeal, at least in my case, is nostalgia. The first storyline, “The Return of Wally West,” reunites “my” Flash with the original Titans as they tussle with one of the first Flash villains I ever read, Abra Kadabra, a techno-magician from the distant future.

When DC rebooted with the New 52, Wally got lost in the shuffle (as did fellow Titan Donna Troy, the original Wonder Girl, who’s also back here, though her return happened in a previous story I haven’t read). Wally’s back now, and he gets a starring role in the new Titans series (featuring the original Teen Titans, but a bit beyond the “teen” part).

Wally must come to terms with the fact that the world isn’t quite how he remembers it, which is fitting, as it’s not quite the DC Universe I remember either. But some things remain constant, and one of those things is friendship, as Titans #6 makes clear. The bond between these former sidekicks remains as strong as ever, which the issue creatively shows using pre-established Flash lore.

I’m not sure if it would work as well for newer readers, but for older readers who grew up with these characters, it’s almost like checking in with old friends you haven’t seen in ages. Seeing this classic Titans lineup in action together just makes me happy, because I read their classic adventures when I was a young teenager. And I grew up reading about Wally West’s maturation into adulthood, so seeing him in action as a Flash and as the storyline’s leading character—even better.

Writer: Dan Abnett

Penciler: Brett Booth

Inker: Norm Rapmund

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: recent back issues; Comixology; included in Titans vol. 1: The Return of Wally West (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

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