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

Today’s Super Comic — Zatanna: Everyday Magic (2003)

Zatanna gets the Vertigo treatment in this prestige format one-shot. The adult language and brief nudity neither add to nor detract from the story, but magic does tend to feel at home in the Vertigo imprint.

Everyday Magic isn’t the definitive Zatanna story, but it’s a solid, well-told one by the guy who writes the character best, Paul Dini. Between tours, Zatanna finds John Constantine in her home, and he’s nursing a curse as well as a hangover. So she has to save his, and others’, day by confronting the witch who did this to him. While Zatanna is saving his life, Constantine bonds with her new romantic fling, much to her dismay.

It’s a quick, light read, but it’s fun and shows how wonderfully she works as a lead character. She’s always at the edge of this very dark, magical world, but she remains sunny in the face of it. And she keeps trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life, no matter how futile that is. Every page, she exudes charisma.

Constantine may have been the one who got his own TV show, but here, Zatanna is his hero.

Also, an imaginary talking rabbit narrates Zatanna’s backstory. I would include that in the “plus” column.

Writer: Paul Dini

Artist: Rick Mays

Cover: Brian Bolland

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — JSA #53 (2003)

As the first super-team, the Justice Society of America’s role within the DC Universe has often been teaching heroes how to be better heroes. But wisdom often comes from mistakes, and the old guard has made their share in their younger days.

In JSA #53, an old mistake comes back to haunt founding JSA member Wildcat. With this being a comic, the haunting is literal.

The new Crimson Avenger attacks Wildcat, seeking to avenge someone he allegedly framed for a crime many years ago, and her supernatural bullets are capable of hurting even Power Girl. Both badly wounded, Wildcat and Power Girl struggle to survive against a relentless force of vengeance.

The tension remains high throughout, and Wildcat’s old mistake is legally black-and-white but morally gray, creating a conundrum for said force of vengeance. But he definitely overstepped back then. It adds to his character and shows how even the most experienced among us are always still learning.

Writer: Geoff Johns

Penciler: Don Kramer

Inker: Keith Champagne

Cover: Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in JSA vol. 7: Princes of Darkness

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Amazing Spider-Man #229-230 (1982)

Spider-Man is best as the underdog. Against the unstoppable Juggernaut, yeah, he’s very much the underdog.

In The Amazing Spider-Man #229, Juggernaut pursues the psychic Madame Web, and only Spider-Man is available to come to her aid. But he’s totally ineffectual against an invulnerable opponent who’s as strong as the Hulk. He seeks help from other superheroes, but they’re all out of reach (conveniently for the story, inconveniently for Spidey). It’s all on him. He tries. He fails.

But for Spidey, failure is motivation. Someone was counting on him, and he let her down. That hits hard, especially given his previous failures in life. So he picks himself back up and resolves to capture the Juggernaut, no matter the personal cost, and issue #230 shows Spidey giving it all he’s got until he prevails.

It’s a great structure for a two-parter. The hero fails, regroups, and perseveres, because like hell he’s failing again.

A textbook example of a superb superhero story.

Writer: Roger Stern

Penciler: John Romita Jr.

Inker: Jim Mooney

Publisher: Marvel Comics

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

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Black Widow #6 (2014)

I had somehow overlooked the previous Black Widow series, which ran for twenty issues from 2014 to 2015. Rectifying that now.

The focus is on what Natasha does when she’s not being an Avenger. She chooses to use her time and skills to atone for her past. The book is primarily a spy thriller, and it keeps the character of its protagonist at the forefront.

Writer Nathan Edmonson portrays Natasha as someone who is most comfortable gathering intelligence and would rather not engage anyone directly—but if she needs to, she’ll jump into the fray. Issue #6 observes how lonely a spy’s life is, how difficult it is to let anyone in.

It’s a compelling take on the Black Widow. Her motivation is strong. Her flaws and strengths affect her actions. And there’s plenty of excitement along the way, as well as ongoing plot threads that build and make each issue stronger than the previous.

There’s even a fun little cameo in #6 that ties into the issue’s theme of loneliness. Very well done.

Writer: Nathan Edmonson

Artist: Phil Noto

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Black Widow vol. 1: Finely Woven Thread (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Ms. Marvel #20 (2007)

I’ve been rereading writer Brian Reed’s Ms. Marvel and enjoying the gradual redevelopment of Carol Danvers from failed superhero to A-lister. Issue #20 concludes a three-part storyline that pits her against a villain who’s a very appropriate antagonist when you consider the character’s troubled fictional history (spoilers ahead).

Even before Rogue absorbed her memories and powers, Ms. Marvel’s career went off the rails in an ill-advised Avengers storyline. Following a supernatural pregnancy (and what good ever follows a supernatural pregnancy in comics?), Carol left to live in another dimension with her…son who was also his own father and therefore her lover too? Was that it? I had to check, and regrettably, I’m not wrong. Ugh.

So, back then, Carol was mind-controlled in mega-creepy fashion. Therefore, in #20, when she thwarts another creepy mind-control plot, this one by perennial Fantastic Four foe the Puppet Master, her decision to let the Puppet Master kill himself feels entirely justified. Not heroic, but in character for Carol at this point. (That Avengers storyline is never mentioned here, and that’s probably for the best, but knowing the history adds subtext to the story.)

Importantly, she’s conflicted about her decision, albeit after the fact. It shows how she’s still getting herself back on track, but also that she’s capable of the self-reflection and growth needed to get there.

Writer: Brian Reed

Penciler: Greg Tocchini

Inker: Roland Paris

Cover: Greg Horn

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Ms. Marvel vol. 4: Monster Smash (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Teen Titans #1 (2003)

The best Titans series in nearly twenty years succeeded by opening up its roster to the next generation and establishing a solid premise.

The successful 1980 New Teen Titans relaunch clearly inspired the 2003 Teen Titans relaunch. The lineups look similar enough to suggest a connection. Cyborg, Starfire, Changeling, and Raven are back, but this time they’re mentoring the next generation—Robin (Tim Drake), Wonder Girl (Cassie Sandsmark), Kid Flash (Bart Allen), and Superboy (Connor Kent). With the exception of Superboy, it’s basically the 1980 Teen Titans with some younger faces.

This Teen Titans team is structured as a weekend activity for the teenage superheroes, a chance to spend time with their closest friends instead of being cooped up in their respective hometowns, being forced to hide who and what they really are. Of course, even as a weekend extracurricular, trouble will find the Titans.

The first issue opens with a strong focus on character, particularly with regards to the four teenagers. The former members of Young Justice are still reeling from recent events, in which a founding Titan died. This issue, and the opening storyline, is about bringing the band back together and graduating them to the next level. They’re technically kids, but not for much longer. It’s time to start growing up, and the best way to do that is among friends, including older friends who have been in their position before.

It’s a strong start, and the book remained strong for years. It’s easily the second-best Titans series ever.

Writer: Geoff Johns

Penciler: Mike McKone

Inker: Marlo Alquiza

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Teen Titans vol. 1: A Kid’s Game (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up