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Superhero 101: Secret Six, Journey Into Mystery, Spandex (Part 7 of 7)
Concluding the baker's dozen of key superhero comics begun here, and continued here, here, here, here & here.I had meant for this Superhero 101 series to be wrapped up in two or at most three posts.  But then I realised that I've never really taken the chance to discuss the likes of Watchmen, Batman Year One, Marvels, The Authority and The Ultimates. So many others have done so,of course, and a fair few of their number have been smart and insightful critics. Why struggle to reinvent the wheel?Yet it'll soon be time to retire TooBusyThinking, and it struck me that I might never again have the freedom to chinstroke away about these classic comics. If I was ever going to digress wildly on the topic of early widescreen comics, now is the time. Hence the seven rather than three parts of Superhero 101. By contrast, the last three choices in the series below are titles that I very much have discussed over the past few years. To write in any great depth about them again seemed - even for this blog - an indulgence too far. But I wouldn't want to give the impression to any stray visitor that I thought any less highly of Secret Six, Journey Into Mystery and Spandex than the books I've recently rattled on about.  If what follows seems in places disrespectfully brief, it's only because I've paid my regards at length before. Evidence of that lies in the labels tab to your right on this very blog.11. 2006-2015 Villains United/ Secret Six, by Gail Simone & a host of artistsLike all of the other titles in Superhero 101, Gail Simone's Secret Six is first and foremost a compelling and frequently moving action/adventure series. But what marks her stories out in the context of the long history of the super-book is Simone's determinedly empathetic attitude towards her cast of disordered and frequently dangerous supervillains. Of course, super-villains have long been portrayed with varying degrees of sensitivity and compassion. One of the hallmarks of Lee, Kirby and Ditko's Marvel Revolution was their depiction of the likes of Doctor Doom and The Lizard as tragic as well as "evil" figures. By the same token, comics featuring groups of super-villains have appeared throughout the super-book's history, from the appropriately-named Super-Villain Team-Up to Wanted. It's a minor tradition, but a tradition all the same. Keenly aware of the approach taken by John Ostrander during his long run on 1987's Suicide Squad, Simone ensured that she associated each and every one of her "super-villains" with a specific and all-too-real criminal pathology. At the same time, she ensured that her characters displayed every bit as much individuality as their disorders would allow. On a practical level, this allowed her to differentiate each of her cast -  core members and guests alike - in a way that vague ideas of good and evil would never allow. As such, it swiftly became impossible to think of, for example, Catman or Scandal Savage as anything so reductive as "super-villains". As time has passed, the labels of hero, anti-hero and villain have become ever more unhelpful. Criminals the Six quite evidently are, and most of them are deeply dangerous individuals. Yet Simone ensures they're people first. Even the various sociopaths that clutter up the DCU become fully-rounded and entirely singular personalities when they pop up in her tales.Thought of as a problem solving tool, Simone's character-building also offers solutions to several of the serial comicbook's least convincing conventions. Why do super-villains wear costumes, adopt particular personnas and shticks, target specific super-heroes, and continue to do so when their efforts always end in failure? Driven as they are by their varying demons and disorders, the Secret Six are mostly all locked into tragic and largely inescapable patterns of behaviour that answer precisely those questions. Rather than a comic that ignores such patterns of destructive behaviour, it investigates them, explains them and uses them to ask questions about individual culpability and social justice. Between disorder and free will stand the likes of Bane and Deadshot, each with a different measure of choice and each with a different brand of compulsion. To what degree are they responsible? How should they be restrained? Can they be redeemed, and should they be given the opportunity to try? Would the world be better off without them? Few if any of the title's characters are ever likely to find peace, which, again, constantly prompts the question of how could they do so? All of them are running from themselves. Indeed, they can hardly manage to work together on a single project without betraying each other. Often they don't even know why they're behaving as they are. Even when they do, it's rarely of any help. Whether their opponents can hurt them before they hurt themselves is a constant theme of the book. Usually, both disasters occur simultaneously. For some, the association of character with destiny is a boon. For many, it's anything but, and there's a great deal that's recognisably everyday about the Secret Six's attempts to separate what they want from what they ought to.In many ways, Secret Six is a reactionary's nightmare. Simone is clearly determined to avoid portraying her cast as The Other, as the uncontrollable and irredeemable expressions of evil that must be despised, feared, hated, punished and destroyed. Sympathy for the devil is not an approach welcomed by the right, while the suggestion that the devil doesn't actually exists is similarly heretical. It's a difficult trick to pull off without seeming like a fluffy-hearted apologist, but Simone consistently achieves it. Even as we're encouraged to care for her cast and root for their safety, they're also presented as deeply fractured and profoundly dangerous individuals. To empathise with the various and often terrifying members of the Six is in no way to excuse their actions or minimise their threat. But in accentuating their essential humanity, obscured and twisted as it is, Simone underscores that crime is rarely a career rooted in rational and considered thinking. In essence, her cast are broken human beings, and their attempts to make life meaningful are constrained by forces that are significantly beyond their control. The idea of The Criminal dissolves into a sequence of singular individuals who, for this reason or that, have committed crimes. Simple, so-called solutions appear more and more absurd. On one level or another, the various and ever-changing members of Simone's Secret Six are all aware of the advantages of belonging to a group. Of course, different characters perceive different benefits, while their perceptions might obscure other, more fundamental needs. But for whatever reason, the cost of being alone is often far, far greater than that of attempting to belong in one way or another. Some seek a measure of emotional intimacy, or security, or self-advantage, or revenge, or so on. But in the various ways in which they try and fail to belong lies the measure of their wounds and their humanity. Little that the superbook has thrown up can compete for pathos with the moments in which the Six attempt to treat one another with kindness and concern. Since this is merely a pressure-cooker example of our own day-in, day-out experiences, it's impossible not to recognise that the Secret Six are often far more like ourselves than we'd want to admit.   12. 2010's Journey Into Mystery, by Kieron Gillen & a host of artistsMost of the comics recommended in Superhero 101 can be read in a single sitting. Even the various different incarnations of the Secret Six can be enjoyed in separate and self-contained collections. But Kieron Gillen's run on Journey Into Mystery needs to be read in its entirety. Taken as a story, it's an absolute and admirable triumph. But for the purposes of this baker's dozen, it's also a textbook rich in strategies for the rejuvenation of wornthrough and humdrum characters. At the beginning of Gillen's run on JIM, there seemed few takes on classic Marvel characters less interesting than that of Kid Loki. By its end, there appeared few if any to match him. Popular fiction is constantly torn between a tendency towards exhaustion and the necessity for renewal. Gillen's JIM is a rare example of the latter quality winning out.Gillen himself has always been quick to credit Matt Fraction with the idea of rebooting the God of Mischief as a young and potentially innocent child. Yet it's Gillen's long stint on JIM  - in company of a considerable number of artists - that fulfilled the set-up's promise. For those interested in Gillen's own thoughts on the matter, I'd heartily suggest the interview he kindly gave TooBusyThinking a few years ago. I've also sung the title's praises elsewhere on TooBusyThinking. For those keen to read an astute introduction to JIM's essential and admirable qualities, I'd recommend Tom Ewing's fine 2012 eulogy for the series. (If you haven't read JIM before, then please beware of spoilers.)     13. Spandex #3: featuring Not If You Were Last Person On Earth, by Martin Eden, as collected in 2012's Spandex: Fast And HardThere was never any doubt in my mind that Martin Eden's decidedly independent superhero titles deserved to be mentioned here. (The adventures of both the O-Men and Spandex can be found at Eden's homepage here.) With his deceptively naive art, it's easy at first glance to presume that Eden's storytelling is undercooked and haphazard. Nothing could be further from the truth. For all their frequently rough-edged charm, his pages can be both sophisticated in design and highly effective. Craftmanship shouldn't be confused with sleek conformity, the predominance of which can leave the typical super-book seeming blandly homogenic. By contrast, Eden's small press comics - a few of which have been collected by Titan - suggest a future in which individual expression might trump both the inertia of fanlad expectations and the superhero industry's business plans.It's all too easy to despair of the majority of corporate superhero tales, and to damn the genre accordingly. But that would be as unfair to the finest creators at the majors as it would be to those who've chosen a more independent approach. I suspect, however, that the latter group might have a greater chance of producing work that's singular and involving. As Eden's work testifies, small-press superhero comics can be idiosyncratic and daring in ways that the majors might think twice, and more than twice, about.  Yet it would be an insult to suggest that Spandex's worth lies in its stylistic difference. As I attempted to express - here - some years ago, it's a comic that's both highly moving and deeply principled. A view of the world from the streets of Brighton and its LGBT community, Spandex expresses a diversity, empathy and quirkiness that's often missing in the super-book. In particular, the splendid Not If You Were The Last Person On Earth is a tale of despair and renewal that's the equal of any in the genre. I'd recommend it to anyone and everyone.Superhero 1011. The Spirit (1946-52), by Will Eisner & his studio2. The Amazing Spider-Man #17, by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee et al3. The Death Of Superman, by Jerry Siegel & Curt Swan et al4. The Forever People #8, by Jack Kirby with Mike Royer et al5. The Defenders #31-41 + Annual #1, by Steve Gerber & Sal Buscema et al6. The X-Men #141-2, by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin et al  7. Watchmen, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons et al  8. Batman Year One, by Frank Miller & David Mazzuccelli et al 9. Marvels, by Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross et al 10 The Ultimates, by Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch et al11. Secret Six, by Gail Simone et al12. Journey Into Mystery, by Kieron Gillen et al13. Spandex, by Martin Eden

41 Captivating Comics Panels
From Optic Nerve by Adrian Tomine, as printed in 2015′s Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels.For once last time before TooBusyThinking leaves the stage, here's the most recent Comics Panel Of The Day frames from the TBTAMC Tumblr.  If you've a moment to fill, I hope this does the job....From 1962′s Adventure Comics #293, by Jerry Siegel, Curt Swan, George Klein et al.From Slaine The King in 1987′s 2000 AD #509, by Pat Mills, Glenn Fabry et al.Comics panel of the day #150From 1955′s Moomin’s Desert Island by Tove Jansson,as reprinted in 2013′s ninth edition of Moomin The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip. From 2006′s J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit Revised Edition, as adapted by David Wenzel and Chuck Dixon.From Black Paths, by David B, as printed in English by SelfMadeHero in 2011From 1966′s Tales Of Suspense #66 by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Frank Ray et al, as reprinted in 1990′s Marvel Masterworks: Captain America. From Tales Of Suspense Nos 59-81.From the 2004 English language reprint of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Volume 1, by Hayao Miyazakis.From 1965′s The Brave And The Bold #62, by Gardner Fox, Murphy Anderson et al..From 2011′s Xombi #4, by John Rozum & Frazer Irving et al.From 2014′s Supercrash, by Darryl Cunningham.From 1973′s The Perishers No 15 by Dennis Collins & Maurcie Dodd.From The Sky Shark, by Keith Watson, as appeared in The Topper Book 1972.From 1971′s The Sub-Mariner #35 by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Jim Mooney et al. From 2012′s Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, by Pekar & Joseph RemnantFrom 1997′s The Savage Dragon/Marshal Law #1, by Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill et alFrom 1940′s Batman #1, by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson et alFrom 2015′s Adventures On The Yes, Ono & May Bee, as appeared in Viz #247, creators uncredited.From the Plastic Man feature in 1943′s Police Comics, by Jack ColeFrom 2007′s The Vampires Of Prague, as appeared in Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others, by Mike Mignola & P. Craig Russell.Forbidden Journey, from 1958′s Alarming Tales #4 by Jack Kirby, as restored for 2013′s Simon & Kirby - Science-Fiction.From 2007′s The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #4, by Gerard Way, Gabriel Ba, Dave Stewart et al.From 2003′s Catwoman #24, by Ed Brubaker & Cameron Stewart et al. (Panel slightly cropped to avoid gutter-spanning text box.)From 1952′s It’s A Woman’s World in Mystery In Space #8, by John Broome, Bob Oksner, Bernard Sachs et al.From 2012′s Saga #8, by Brian K Vaughan, Fiona Staples et alFrom 2012′s My Friend Dahmer, by Derf Backderf.From 2012′s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 2009, by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill.From 1964′s Journey Into Mystery #101, by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, George Roussos et al, as reprinted in 1993′s Marvel Masterworks Vol 26: The Mighty Thor.From 2004′s Hard Time #1, by Steve Gerber, Brian Hurtt et al.From 2011′s Don Quixote Volume One, adapted from the novel by Miguel de Cervantes by Rob DavisFrom 1980′s Judge Dredd: Otto Sump’s Ugly Clinic Part 3, as published in 2000AD #188, by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ron Smith. From 1972′s Daredevil The Man Without Fear #52, by Roy Thomas, Barry-Windsor-Smith et alFrom 1984′s Crossfire #1, by Mark Evanier, Dan Spiegle et alFrom 1998′s JLA #15, by Grant Morrison, Gary Frank et alFrom 1966′s Fantastic Four #49, by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Joe Sinnott et alFrom 1962′s Justice League Of America, by Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs et al.From 2012′s August Moon, by Diana Thung.From 2013′s Porcelain - A Gothic Fairy Tale, by Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose.From 1997′s Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes.From 2004′s Ex Machina #5, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris et al.From 2008′s All Star Superman, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely et al.

Superhero 101: The Ultimates (Part 6 of 7)
Continuing the baker's dozen of key superhero comics begun here, and continued here, here, here & here.9. 20002's The Ultimates I and II, by Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch (cont) In this, as in so many other ways, Bryan Hitch's artwork was of ill-calculable benefit to The Ultimates project.  Ignoring the risk of appearing impertinent and demanding, Millar pushed Marvel into buying Hitch out of his contract with Crossgen. (Millar has stated that he turned down Marvel's suggestion of two big-name artists for The Ultimates, convinced as he was that only Hitch would do.) It would prove to be an exceptionally canny investment. The widescreen approach places an exacting and exhausting responsibility upon the artist's shoulders. Weaknesses that might be obscured in the text-heavy, plot-saturated super-books of the past will stand out for all to see in widescreen comics, where the art is tasked with carrying a relatively huge degree of the storytelling. As Hitch had proven on The Authority, he was more than up to the task. After all, that ur-text of the widescreen approach was as much his creation as Ellis'. No other artist's work during the period succeeded in transmitting the conviction of the real as Hitch's did. Whether depicting a war between super-humans and alien shapeshifters or the subtle emotional beats of a floundered love affair, Hitch's meticulously detailed and rigorously staged artwork brought Millar's script to vivid life. There would be entire issues - such as The Ultimates #7 - without super-heroic conflict of any substantial kind. Many a fan-favourite artist might stumble in the absence of punches being thrown and ray beams projected, but the empathetic subtleties of Hitch's approach left Millar free to be as restrained in his scripts as the story demanded.To call Hitch's art hyper-real - as so many have - is to express a delight at how plausible and beguiling his artwork can be. Yet it's also to seriously under-estimate how individual, and indeed idiosyncratic, Hitch's pages are. It also suggests that the key to his art's success lies in his painstaking - and frequently beautiful - representations of the mundane. (As with the sets of the likes of Star Wars and Alien/s, even much of the futuristic technology in Hitch's art suggests a lived-in and often worn-through world.) But if his method were merely to replicate the world, then a great many others would have mimicked his achievement. None have. No amount of photograph reference and assiduous cross-hatching will produce pages that are the equal of his. Having begun his career by aping Alan Davis' art, Hitch had progressed to a style that others might struggle to emulate. For all of Hitch's remarkable ability to suggest a world that's at once entirely typical and yet simultaneously extraordinary, he's also an artist steeped in the long tradition of superhero comics. It's an obvious point, but sometimes the obvious needs expressing. Accordingly, Hitch's super-hero art isn't any way a rejection of comics tradition so much as an expert evolution of it.A glance at 2009's Captain America: Reborn is perhaps the best way of establishing the point. There, Hitch homaged a substantial number of artists who'd previously worked on the character's adventures. Even the work of craftsman as unfashionable as the brilliantly singular Frank Robbins were lovingly and recognisably referenced in Hitch's panels. So skilfully was this done that a neophyte would never need notice that Hitch was tipping his hat to any number of other styles. The deeply respectful appropriation was achieved without Hitch's own style appearing uncharacteristically inconsistent. As any illustrator worth their salt aspires to, Hitch has absorbed any number of influences from within and without comics. The subsequent synthesis can appear to have little to do with four-colour tradition. But to focus on Hitch as a master of comics-realism without recognising his virtues as an expert superhero artist - among many other skills - is to miss the essential qualities of his success. As with Millar, the singular appeal of Hitch's work on The Ultimates lies in the way it combines open-minded experimentation with an expert command of tradition, a love of the subject matter with a rejection of its long-held conservatism.The determination to respect tradition while projecting verisimilitude and contemporaneity drove many other aspects of The Ultimates. In reaching out to the non-comics devotee, Millar was determined to portray a world that was far more than the intimidating accumulation of decades worth of comics continuity. But how to make the likes of Captain America seem not just contemporary, but vital? Part of the solution involved a process of layering that involved both the apparently trivial and the livewire contentious. To suggest that The Ultimates was as in the moment as any other mainstream popcorn event, Millar and Hitch filled The Ultimates with references to real-world celebrities from George W Bush to Freddie Prinze Jr, Robert Downey Jr to Samuel L Jackson. (The lifting of the latter's features and film-screen cool for a new take on master-spy Nick Fury was a particularly audacious signal that The Ultimates was ill-concerned with fannish sacred cows.) But on a decidedly less disposable level, as we'll return to later, Millar's script was also centrally concerned with the politics of the post-9/11 world.  Although many would miss his point, and many more claim that he'd made it ineptly, Millar's questioning of America and, by implication, Britain's foreign wars was sincere, forceful, and, as events would show, far-sighted. Other comics had shown super-heroes to be misguided to the point of authoritarianism and psychological disorder. The likes of Seventies superheroes The Punisher and Wolverine had established the popularity of the superhero as merciless murderer, while Gruenwald, Hall and Ryan's Squadron Supreme had portrayed a team of superheroes sliding well-meaningly from social crusaders to international tyrants. But the genre's taste for brutality and even nihilism would win out over more measured and thoughtful traditions. Depressingly facile readings of Watchmen led to led to the traumatised serial killer Rorschach being adopted as role model and sales winner for an industry obsessed with reactionary vigilantes. The idea of the morally flawed superhero as a cautionary tale became more and more supplanted by a celebration of lawless brutality.   It was a battle for the super-book's ethical soul that The Authority and The Ultimates would appear to join on the side of the hang-em-high brigades. Like the worst of post-Watchmen callousness, each team were placed firmly in the narrative space reserved traditionally for the hero. Their enemies were menacing, their responses were necessarily extreme, their victories hard-won. Yet both Ellis and Millar also made it perfectly clear that the distance between their apparent champions and the unvarnished good that they claimed to serve was immense and unbridgeable. In Ellis' tales, The Authority were clearly law-scorning fascists disguised - to themselves as much as anyone else - as progressive champions of a more ethical world order. In The Ultimates, the situation was a touch more complicated and yet, essentially the same. There, it was the ignorance and mendacity of America's post-9/11 regime that Millar was primarily taking aim at. No matter how successfully The Ultimates fulfilled their patriotic duty, and no matter how pressing and appalling the firefights they engaged in, the end result was the escalation of already-appalling circumstances. In both series, the likes of alien invasions could be turned back by super-powers and derring do. Not so the establishment and maintenance of a just and equable world. In their own ways the descendants of Alan Moore's Miracleman, both The Authority and The Ultimates insisted that extra-legal violence bred only disorder and tyranny.  At moments, Millar's slaps at Bush and his rightist allies involved repositioning the Ultimate Captain America as a contemptuous, how-high xenophobe. At others, the writer's purpose was revealed through an invasion of Ultimate America by an alliance of foreign states both terrified and furious at the Republic's protracted flouting of international law. Millar being Millar, the satire alternated between the gleeful and the serious, the contentious-for-its-own sake and the bravely confrontational. But Millar's point remained constant; heroic deeds can't redeem an ignoble cause, while the shock and awe of modern-day weaponry cannot possibly replace diplomacy and nation-building. Striving not to insult either the soldiers or the civilians who'd been caught up in the so-called War On Terror, Millar's scripts provoked even as they lacked the pulpit's clarity. Accused of wanting his cake and eating it, Millar provided Hitch with scene after scene of inventive and protracted uber-violence that often seems quite disconnected with any broader ethical framework. (Is the slaughter of The Chitauri in volume one, for example, a parody of gung-hu chauvinism and its tendency to reduce opponents to The Other, or is it a celebration of the same?) In truth, it's impossible to see the two volumes of Millar and Hitch's The Ultimates as a rigorously worked and consistently barbed allegory. Although I'd be delighted to be proven wrong, it seems more likely that Millar pushed his political convictions at moments while, at others, he surrendered joyfully to the rush of the dramatic scenarios he'd planned out. At moments, the violence serves an ethical agenda, while at others, it's violence for the fun of comicbook violence. Whatever, the presence of the satire in The Ultimates keeps alive the possibility that every scene means something more than its surface declares. Even its apparent inconsistency of approach leaves the comic feeling contentious and, through that, alive.For superhero fans who objected to brave "Charlton Heston" Captain America fighting world-threatening evil while clearly provoking the same, the experience could be as baffling as it was infuriating. Were these superheroes representations of the good or its absence? Were they role models or cautionary tales? Were they being mocked or celebrated? And whose side was Millar on anyway? The answer, as always, was that Millar was on his own side and that was that. It was a confrontational approach to take in a time of national hysteria, and the criticism he received was considerable and fierce. Given that Millar's own politics are a contentious mix of the confrontationally conservative and the throw-up-the-barricades radical, The Ultimates frequently felt as if he was picking a fight with everyone. Debates about other contentious aspects of The Ultimates - gender roles and cultural representations in particular - only strenghtened the suggestion that Millar was out to provoke for the sake of the heat it might generate. Whatever the interpretation, and I think the comic's a far more complicated and playful experience than that, it's a process of tension and friction that helped make The Ultimates an invigorating and indispensable read in an exceedingly difficult time.   Are opinions still divided on The Ultimates? I hope so. Millar could clearly start a fight in an empty field over a laughably imaginary bull, and yet, many of the debates thrown up by The Ultimates were undoubtedly grounded in principled and purposeful concerns. What's more, he was speaking out against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan when most - if not all - of his colleagues on mainstream books were keeping, at best, timidly quiet. What's more, time has proven his analysis correct. The War On Terror has created nothing but ill. If this baker's dozen of super-books is concerned with the bare bones of how to make the super-book interesting, then Millar's approach is surely worth its inclusion.  to be concluded.

Superhero 101: The Ultimates (Part 5 of 7)
Continuing the baker's dozen of key superhero comics begun here, and continued here, here & here.  10. 20002's The Ultimates I and II, by Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch (cont) Jump ahead a month or two and everything had changed for Millar.  His continuation of The Authority with Frank Quitely had marked him out as the superhero comicbook's coming man. From has-been to zeitgeist-setter in next to no time, or so the shorthand would have it, Millar was then headhunted by Quesada and Jemas' new regime at Marvel and put to work on their new Ultimate line of comics. In 1998, Millar had failed to interest Quesada - then editor at the Marvel Knights imprint - in a mini-series about the son of an obscure Spider-Man villain named The Shocker. Now Millar was suddenly central to Marvel's new, tone-setting flagship project.  It's hard to imagine an assignment more in tune with Millar's own passions and convictions. For fifteen years as both fanboy letter writer and professional scripter, he'd argued that the combination of impenetrable storytelling and exhaustingly demanding continuity was killing the super-book. Quesada and Jemas were of a similar, if not always identical, disposition, and the Ultimate line would feature reboots of iconic characters unencumbered by opaque narratives and unfathomable back-stories. Back-to-basics deconstructions of the likes of Spider-Man and the X-Men - the latter under Millar's stewardship - would prove immediate successes, with the former far outstripping the character's pre-existing and unreconstructed titles. (According to the sales figure in the public domain, Ultimate X-Men would outsell all of Marvel's other mutant books except - with no little irony - for Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's New X-Men, itself a radical reworking of the property. Even there, the month-on-month figures for the two vying titles were consistently very close indeed.)But as pleased as he was to land a book as prestigious as Ultimate X-Men, Millar was determined to push for a reboot of The Avengers too.  His new bosses were unconvinced, and who could fault them? They were looking for Marvel properties that might be streamlined and spruced up for the 21st century. At first glance, The Avengers was anything but that. Although the past few years had seen Kurt Busiek and George Perez gather critical acclaim and top ten sales for the title, The Avengers remained a property that seemed hopelessly mired in continuity and irredeemably unfashionable. As such, The Avengers remained what it had been since the late Seventies; a middle-ranking and somewhat passe franchise. As such, it was way down the list when it came to properties to rework for a broader audience of unfans. Although Millar himself had largely ignored The Avengers for decades, he was convinced of the property's promise. As a child, he'd devoured the earliest of the superteam's adventures as reprinted in Marvel UK's black and white weekly titles. With his characteristic scepticism towards received wisdom, Millar was convinced that the DNA of a breakout sales success could be extracted from the mid-Sixties work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in particular. (Millar's long been sure that the finest incarnations of a great many superheroes coincide with his childhood's favourite comics. Whether that's right or not, his radical reworking of classic set-ups have frequently proved to be massive successess.) His stubborn, enthusiastic conviction - allied to his recent successes - won the day. Retitled as The Ultimates, Millar's Avengers would be launched in 2002. In its first month, it's reputed to have shifted more than 160 000 copies, From a standing start, it crashed into the top five of America's comic sales chart and remained there for the whole of its run. For Millar, The Ultimates would become his most widely acclaimed work on a corporate-owned comic. (Civil War, for one, would sell a great many more copies, but it would never be as generally admired as The Ultimates.) For Marvel, the result would be far more than an unexpectedly popular and credible title. When Marvel Studios developed The Avengers as a movie franchise, it drew liberally from Millar and artist Bryan Hitch's work.  The profits were to be astronomical.   In The Ultimates, Millar furiously and gleefully stripped away decades worth of continuity and narrative shibboleths. From there, he and Hitch refashioned great strips of Marvel's history from scratch. Only those aspects of The Avengers' set-up considered vital by Millar would remain, and they would be rebuilt according to his own judgement. For all of his love for the earliest source material, Millar's scripts would be frequently radical and challenging. Janet Van Dyne would suffer horrific domestic abuse at the hands of Hank Pym. Tony Stark would remain a very public drunk. Steve Rogers would be anything but a New Deal progressive. The hands of Bruce Banner's alter ego would no longer be unconvincingly free of blood-stains. (Controversy has typically been central to Millar's method, and, tellingly, his least successful years in the business - in 1998/99 - were marked by the quality's absence.) If the other on-going Ultimates title were recognisably distillations of long-running titles, the Ultimates themselves were a far more radical proposition. (I'll discuss the comic's politics in the final piece in this series of posts, but suffice to say, they too were contentious.)In that, The Ultimates forcibly expressed Millar's frustration with the vast majority of the superhero comics published by Marvel since Jim Shooter's rise to Editor-In-Chief in 1978. (Millar would read surprisingly few Marvel comics during the long years following Shooter's ascension. Although he and Grant Morrison would browse the company's output during their mid-90s flirtation with Marvel, only Denny O'Neil's Iron Man run from the early 80s has been consistently and appreciatively name-checked by him.) The most inventive and invigorating reboot on this scale that the genre had seen, The Ultimates is essential reading in this context if nothing else. Just as it was an ambitious attempt to reinvigorate a property and a company, it was also an attempt to reframe the superhero comic as a whole. All long-standing genres are at heart an argument with themselves, and few in superhero comics can pursue an argument with, shall we say, Millar's partisan resolve. As such, Millar and Hitchs The Ultimates is a very different beast to Ellis and Hitch's The Authority. For all the debt that Millar has constantly acknowledged to Ellis' widescreen approach, he was pursuing a very different agenda. Where Ellis appeared to be arguing that even superheroes could be interesting, Millar was bent on establishing that the very genre was in itself dynamic and fascinating. Where Ellis gave every impression of speaking to a niche audience of dissatisfied fans, Millar appeared determined to reach out to the superhero audience as a whole while reaching far beyond its relatively small numbers. Convinced that superheroes could and should be absolutely central to the age's popular culture, Millar was out to do even more than reinvigorate the monthly superhero comicbook. After all, films such as Batman, Blade and the X-Men had packed out the multiplexes and topped the video charts. Why couldn't comics speak to the same consumers? Why couldn't comics generate at least something of the same profits, of the same kudos. It's easy to imagine Ellis, whose work has ranged ambitiously across any number of genres, rolling his eyes at the very thought of the superhero becoming central to the mass market entertainment of the time. But that was Millar's mission, and it would remain so until he decisively diversified the subjects of his projects in the second decade of the century. By then, the superhero would have become a culturally ubiquitous type, with three of the most profitable movies of all time featuring one or more of Marvel's characters. If the comics themselves remained a nice concern, the genre has risen to a dizzying degree of prominence. The widescreen approach, as we discussed last time, offered a means to speak to folks who were unfamiliar with the traditional, and frequently demanding, language of superhero comics.  (So too did decompression, as Bendis and Bagley proved for a good many years with their run on Ultimate Spider-Man.) Yet to change the form without invigorating the content would've been a futile gesture. Comics fans and professionals still sadly under-estimate how demanding and off-putting the storytelling in superhero tales can often be.  Yet even when their narratives are clear, the world that they're describing can seem alienatingly lacking in verisimilitude. A lifelong devotee of Richard Donner's groundbreaking work on Superman The Movie, Millar was convinced that the remarkable absurdities of superheroes had to be constantly grounded in the illusion of normalcy. Just as Donner had sold the Man Of Steel to mainstream 70s audience through a skillful juxtaposition of the fantastic with the everyday, so  Millar sought to root The Ultimates in a convincing mix of the typical with the absurd. Events on panel were to be limited to that which could be convincingly portrayed on screen during a modern-era blockbuster movie. Backdrops as varied as those of contemporary New York and the interior of a World War Two transport plane were to be as convincing and compelling as the brawling of super-people. As the ability of Hawkeye to kill with a fingernail will testify, this is hardly the same thing as realism. But as a rigorously maintained approach, it ensured that the storytelling avoided a great measure of taken-for-granted comics boilerplate. At its best - as in Millar and Hitch's masterful depiction of an assault upon an alien stronghold in NYC during The Ultimates #8 -  it established a thrilling fusion of the plausible and the flatly impossible that few if any other superhero titles have surpassed.  to be concluded

Superhero 101: The Authority & The Ultimates (Part 4 of 7)
Continuing the baker's dozen of key superhero comics begun here, and continued here & here. 10. 2002's The Ultimates, by Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch Frank Miller's work in the Eighties remains the single greatest influence upon today's superhero comics. But Warren Ellis' achievements from the following decade come a very close second. Despite his never having been a fan of the superhero genre, Ellis' twelve issue run on The Authority - in collaboration with artist Bryan Hitch - remains a foundation stone of the 21st century superhero tale. Indeed, a comic which adequately replicated the look and feel of 1999's The Authority could still pass as a convincingly contemporary product at both Marvel and DC. Sixteen years have passed, and yet,  little often appears to have changed. Few creators have ever thought to name their own stylistic breakthroughs, but it was Ellis himself who apparently coined the term "widescreen comics" to describe his era-defining approach to The Authority. At the time, he declared to Matt Springer that the title would feature;"Property destruction on a massive scale. It's a superhero book gone widescreen, it's $200 million just on the special effects, it's a Jerry Bruckheimer production with script by Sylvester Stallone, Cecil B DeMille and Timothy Leary. It's as big and mad and beautiful as Bryan Hitch and I can make it. If teenagers need superhero comics, then this is what they should be like -- pure bloody adrenaline, strange days, and big things blowing up. And why not?"Quite what that term has come to mean in the years since is hard to nail down. It is, as the jargon of making sense of jargon would have it, difficult to unpack. What at first appears straight-forward is anything but. Not only has widescreencome to describe a style that's strongly influenced by cinematic storytelling, but one in which the narrative typically progresses in a measured fashion towards a spectacular and protracted third-act climax. As such, the terms widescreenand decompression - meaning the absence of both the super-book's traditionally hectic pace of storytelling and its dense weight of incident - have become synonymous. Frequently, both terms are used as catch-all labels for modern-era comics that supposedly cheat the readership with thin, flaccid, and meandering content. Style, or so some will argue, has frequently triumphed over substance. What could be further from the "pure bloody adrenaline" that Ellis had once aspired to? In truth, "widescreen" in its broadest modern sense does Ellis' late Nineties work on the super-book no justice at all. For his approach on The Authority was as exciting as it was radical, and he can hardly be blamed for how his style has been appropriated by others. Like the majority of successful genre revolutions, Ellis' was at most a step or two ahead of the pack.  But then, that's part of what allowed his work to become so speedily influential. On the one hand, his audience could recognise the value of his innovations. On the other, they were free to embrace change without being thrown by the entirely unfamiliar. Immaculately choreographed and spectacularly staged set-pieces evoked the heights of blockbuster movies, while slower and more thoughtful passages delivered exposition, atmosphere, attitude and character. (I'll be returning to Hitch soon, if it should seem that I'm unduly ignoring his vital and considerable contributions here.) Here was a method that felt not just fresh, individual and intriguing, but eminently imitable. Here was a beguilingly streamlined approach that broke with the boilerplate of superbook tradition and yet appeared to offer a stable and emulatable blueprint into tomorrow. In its wake, age-old conventions like the thought bubble became redundant and largely disappeared. Continuity began to seem ever-more cumbersome and archaic. Sleek, incidentful and accessible, The Authority, and those Ellis titles like it, even promised to be welcoming to non-comics readers. If this was widescreen, then widescreen was direct, clear, eventful and recognisably intertwined with infinitely more popular mediums such as film and TV. Not every panel, or even every page, needed to hysterically snare the reader's attention anew. Not every thought, emotion or action had to be spelled out and pedantically placed into the context of continuity. Not every conflict had to played out according to long-established conventions. As with Moore and Miller before him, Ellis was clearly one for respecting the reader and trusting in their ability to read on without mollycoddling. In return, the ride was to be made, yes, "big and mad and beautiful". Of course, the roots of the widescreen approach go back many decades in American, European and in particular Japanese comics. But the richly idiosyncratic form of it that Ellis pioneered was used to transmit a beguiling cocktail of his personal fascinations. Not only were the ingredients of his tales both singular and distinctive, but they were often strangely contradictory too. A profound humanism co-existed with a deeply cynical attitude to power and convention. A fierce and scornful loathing for self-serving ideologies was partnered with a sweet and touching faith in individual potential. For all that its contents were described with terms such as hyper-realism, hyper-cynicism, and hyper-violence, The Authority is at its core smart, funny, exciting, daring and, yes, touching. As in much of Ellis work, the world may be in terrible shape and its ruling elites entirely despicable, and yet, there's profoundly decent heroes - often disguised as disaffected anti-heroes - to lead the revolution. In that, the series was far more than horizontal panels, wisecracking conversations, and brutal, bloody, imaginative climaxes. Rather, Ellis had matched stylistic innovation with a deeply individual and purposeful brand of story. His tales were founded upon high concepts extracted from contemporary science journals. He embraced the thriller's knowingly laconic world-weariness and yet delighted in impishly hybridising a whole range of pop-cultural influences. To aspire to Ellis' widescreen style from the period without using it to express an equally compelling personal agenda is to miss the very thing that made The Authority so compelling. Alone of his contemporaries at the time, only Ellis cracked how to make superheroes seem counter-culturally cool without simultaneously appearing at all naive and conservative. Others came close, but none came closer.  Why not then choose a comic written by Ellis rather than Mark Millar's The Ultimates for this baker's dozen? Why not The Authority? Millar's work in the period, by his own admission, drew heavily from Ellis', and it's no matter of chance that the Scotsman determinedly nailed down Bryan Hitch as his collaborator on The Ultimates. Yet given the limits of this list of 13 superhero titles, The Ultimates seems to me to engage with the genre in ways and to a degree that The Authority doesn't. Of course, this doesn't make The Ultimatesa better series, and nor does it make it any less worthwhile. But where Ellis often seemed to be saying that even superhero comics can be interesting and enthralling, Millar was celebrating the genre through a direct engagement with its long tradition. The debt that The Ultimates owes The Authorityis undeniably considerable. Yet, Millar did what few of those who followed Ellis' example thought to, in that he brought his own fascinations and style to the widescreen project. In short, he made it his own. Of course, Millar is a lifelong fan of the superhero comic. As such, his work on The Ultimateswould inevitably tap into the traditions of the genre in a way that Ellis would never have considered. Where Ellis depicted analogues of superheroic types, Millar recast genre icons. Where Ellis rejected continuity of all but the barest kind, Millar ruthlessly wrestled with forty years of backstory and rebooted it according to his own taste. Where Ellis stood outside of the mass of superhero fandom, Millar placed himself square in the middle of contemporary debates. If The Authority is a critique from a frustrated if brilliant outsider - "If teenagers need superhero comics" - then The Ultimates is a love letter from a lifelong if frequently disappointed acolyte. In that, it simply has more to say about the joys and the frustrations of the superhero genre. Millar has spoken of how liberating he had found The Authority, with its daringly direct approach to politics, its rejection of continuity-based storytelling, and its cheerful, stripped-back embrace of meticulously rendered spectacle and shock. But truth to be told, Millar's own style was becoming more and more - for want of a better word - cinematic as the late Nineties progressed.  Before The Authority had even appeared, Millar's run on Superman Adventureshad featured an epic two-part clash with a nefarious alt-world Jor-El. Much of what would become known as widescreen was there present, from the scale of the conflict's set-pieces to the brevity of Millar's text. In what was typically dismissed as a children's cartoon book, Millar expressed his fascination for welcomingly transparent storytelling, the logic of the three act structure and the mass appeal of Hollywood summer blockbusters. (The Eisner Awards would later reward his writing for Superman Adventureswith an enthusiasm the marketplace sadly hadn't.) But what was missing was the freedom to dare and contend that The Authority had embodied. In Ellis' hands, The Authority had smartly challenged, for example, homophobia even as it critiqued genre conventions. From its example, it seems, Millar regained his determination to follow his own star, to challenge and outrage and entertain and innovate according to no-one else's light but his own. As such, Ellis choose well when he pushed Millar forward as his successor on The Authority. No doubt he recognised that the Scotsman would respect the spirit rather than the form of the book. To continue as a simulacrum of Ellis and Hitch's storytelling would've been a betrayal of The Authority and all it had stood for. with my apologies for the formatting snafu that I just couldn't find a solution toto be continued

Superhero 101: Marvels (Part 3 of 7)
Continuing the baker's dozen of key superhero comics begun here and continued here. 9. Marvels, by Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross (1994)continued from last time's discussion of Alex Ross' art; The very title of Kurt Busiek's Marvels is, of course, an example of smart-minded wordplay. After all, what could be a more appropriate masthead for a comic detailing forty or so years of Marvel Comics continuity? Yet Busiek's story is a great deal more than an exercise in fannish nostalgia, and the comic's title carries a far more ominous meaning than at first might seem obvious. In New Testament Greek, teras can mean both marveland monster. No surprise then, that Marvels should depict a world that's at least as cursed as it is blessed by its superhuman inhabitants. As seen through the eyes of New York news photographer Phil Sheldon, the comicbook history that's depicted in Marvels is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. The dawn of the Forties might deliver the miracles of the android Human Torch and the water-breathing Sub-Mariner, but it also sparks the conflict between the two that leads to a tsunamic inundation of New York City. Events that the smug and the mendacious might refer to as "collateral damage" are generally ignored in the standard superhero narrative. Lives are ruined, crowds slaughtered, nations overthrown, worlds destroyed, galaxies devastated, reality itself periodically undone, and yet, little seems as important as the hero's own immediate concerns. It's a taken-for-granted sin of omission that Busiek cannily avoids. How might an endless - and endlessly lengthening - procession of remarkably powerful individuals and groups impact upon the likes of you and I? Sometimes the consequences in Marvels are salutary, and, more often than not, they're unsettling and even flat-out depressing. The emergence of the mutants triggers all-too-recognisable examples of mob rule and lynchings. The arrival of the apocalypse in the body of Galactus reveals public opinion to be a profoundly glib and asinine business. Of course, many other creators had mined the same plot device, but never with such skill and at such length. To see life in a superhuman-filled world from the perspective of everyday individuals is to experience canonical cornerstones from a fresh and surprising perspective. Uncertainty reappears in the context of long-familiar situations, and even the most informed and jaded of readers might be returned to a childlike state of wonder and apprehension. Marvels succeeds in working on a remarkable number of levels. It's a celebration of genre, a comics history, a fictional biography and a welcome injection of empathy into an often blithely unempathetic tradition. But all of this is grounded in the surprisingly innovative way in which Busiek puts the very idea of the superhero to use. In Marvels, the wonders and terrors of an immersive superhero universe are used to evoke our own unpredictable and frequently taxing lives in our own essentially meaningless existence. Like us, Busiek's denizens of the MU are faced with constant uncertainty allied to the near certain arrival of any number of traumatic challenges. Like us, they're compelled to confront the marvellous and the monstrous in the context of their everyday travails. As such, Busiek takes the superhero genre and quite deliberately uses its outlandish traditions to express the absurdity of our own lives. If you like, Marvels is, at heart, an existential superhero tale, with its comicbook witnesses being every bit as baffled and enthused, benighted and enlightened, purposeful and powerless as we are. Caught in perpetually hostile circumstances, they hang on as best they can while remaking their world-views in a sincere if desperate attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible. One will cling to bigotry, another to humane faith, but the big picture always remains beyond their grasp. In what may well be the most touching of all the scenes in the book, Gwen Stacey is shown innocently celebrating the strange and beguiling beauty to be found in a superheroic universe. (The aftermath of an Atlantean invasion of New York, she declares, is like living in 'a snow globe'.) But that same appalling beauty will soon show its Janus face, as she's murdered by the Green Goblin. Marvels and monsters, all at the same time, again and again.It's an approach that allows Busiek and Ross to break free from the straightjacket of the superhero as wish-fulfilment. Quite the opposite is true in its pages. Life for Sheldon and his fellows is unpredictable, capricious, unsettling and, ultimately, bewildering. Even the ever-accelerating pace of change in the Marvel Universe becomes a playful metaphor for the befuddling pace of change in our own lives. (For flame-generating androids, taken-for-granted inter-stellar travel and ultimate nullifiers read AI, GM crops, mass surveillance, drone warfare and so on.) It's no little business to have pulled off such a trick. With the misdirection of a master, Busiek scrupulously avoids any suggestion that Marvel's Earth should be almost if not entirely unrecognisable by comparison with our own. The very existence of a science that might create gods and monsters from the likes of us ought to have utterly transformed Marvel Earth, if not more probably destroyed it. But Marvelsisn't about realism in any of its more callow forms. Instead, and in company with all the comics on this list, it embraces the joy of the fantastical while using it to discuss more fundamental concerns. In Marvels, the thoughtfulness and the city-flattening punchups dovetail one with the other. Each is immeasurably stronger for the other's presence.Phil Sheldon ends Marvels in the manner of a suburban Gilgamesh. He may never have slaughtered monsters and challenged the gods, but he has dared to depict the super-people and struggled to make sense of their role in the grand scheme of things. The attempt has ultimately resulted in tragedy and disillusionment, although not, in the end, in unshakable despair. As with Gilgamesh, Sheldon's been forced to accept that the world is ultimately no more understandable than it is predictable or controllable. The superheroes have proved to be fallible, and the fact of that has devastated his faith. Only the less appetising aspects of the human experience appear constant and reliable. Leaving behind a collection of his photographs, Sheldon retreats into retirement. There he hopes to embrace the 'ordinary', and, in doing so, to fulfil the roles of good husband and honest neighbour. He's left what he's seen to future generations in the form of his photojournalism, but he's failed in his attempt to grasp and express, as he'd once hoped, what "the Marvels ... should mean to us".  What's remains is to do the best he can with whatever strength and time he can find. Everything else is an absurdity, and perhaps even that is too. Of all of Marvels many achievements, its bravely downbeat ending is perhaps the finest. It asks questions even as it insists that the answers are nowhere to be found. Few other superhero tales have been as brave, and fewer still as successful.   to be concluded

Superhero 101: Watchman, Batman Year One, Marvels (Part 2 of 7)
Continued from the first part of Superhero 101, which can, should you so choose, be found, here. 7. Watchman, by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons et al (1986/7)There's been a staggering amount of tosh spoken about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. But then, it's the kind of staggering achievement that encourages all of us to speak in the purest of tosh. The least helpful criticism of the book has discussed Watchmen in terms of a perceived clash between genre comics and 'proper' literature. On the one side of the debate sit the outliers of literary taste-making, who've claimed Moore and Gibbons' work for their lists of greatest 20th century novels. On the other, there's the traditionalists from the opposing camps of high art and superhero fandom, who, despite their fundamental differences, often agree that Watchmen is something of a imposter. Neither a novel in the traditional sense or a meat-n'potato superhero tale, Watchmen is, it seems, too childish in form and content to appeal to the Academy while all-too high-faulting for the meat-and-potato comics fan. A pleasingly significant degree of the culture is now content to sidestep such puritanical point-scoring, and yet, the debate over how Watchmen should be defined and evaluated in terms of traditional forms remains depressingly active. (Even today, an adult checking a copy of Watchmen out of a local library runs the risk of pitiful glances and patronising comments from librarians and customers alike. Reader, I was that borrower. ) Yet all such arguments are patently absurd. As is surely obvious, Watchmen isn't in any way an attempt to produce a superhero story which can equal the novel in all its glories. Nor is it a dizzingly radical departure from the typical content of a conventional superhero tale. Rather, Watchmen shows that the superhero story can speak to complex, challenging issues without losing any of its traditional content or appeal. Moore and Gibbons exult in the likes of secret identities, super-continuties, hyper-tech, fiendish villains and so on. At the same time, they display a meticulous, and indeed gleeful, command of decades-worth of comicbook storytelling. Where innovation occurs, and it frequently does, it's grounded in knowledge, love and skill.  As such, the book's form is undeniably ambitious, but its narrative content can often be endearingly, lovingly conservative.This it seems to me, is the trick that Moore and Gibbons performed with such brilliance. Rather than decrying the genre's value, they embraced it with a devotees' expertise and passion. So great was their respect that neither opted to complacently retread the genre's past glories. Instead, Moore and Gibbons hybridised the superhero tradition with the mystery novel and the political thriller. (Had it been published today, the book would have immediately been labelled as dystopian, so great is Moore's disdain for the state and its self-proclaimed servants.) As with so much of the best of the superhero genre, Watchmen's plot discussed the limits of individual and state power. In it, a team of retired super-people reunite to track down the murderer of one of their fellows. As they attempt to do so, the psychologically fragile, if not entirely fractured, superheroes come face-to-face with the realities of how social order is imposed and maintained. In the end, Watchmen reveals itself to be both a critique of the very idea of the superhero in addition to being a celebration of the same form's potential. So rich is the genre's promise, the book suggests, that it can even be used to deny its own worth. As such, Watchmen is neither a pathetic stab at provoking the shocked, admiring applause of the broader culture's gatekeepers or a self-righteous sneer at the mainstream superhero comicbook. Instead, it's a fabulously told costumed crimefighter tale that, for all its faults, remains as thought-provokingly as it's entertaining. But of course, only a particularly foolhardy debater would suggest that there's only one thing to be learned from Watchmen. Yet the bar it sets is high, and few have come close to rising to the challenge it's established. One of the most structurally ingenious of all superhero tales, it also contains several of the genre's most enjoyable set-pieces. (Fun is rarely in short supply in the pages of Watchmen, although it's not always discussed in terms of the sheer fun it provides.) For all its sophistication, Watchmen always remains blissfully readable. To return to it, and then to return again, is to continually notice layers of meaning that welcome further study without ever once demanding it. Although it's a wonderfully clever book - or at least, it is until the story collapses at the book's climax - it never sacrifices plot and character for the story-derailing egotism of aren't-I-clever worthiness.Predictably, when DC Comics contentiously and hubristically decided to publish tens of prequel chapters to the series in 2012, none came anywhere close to the quality of the original. In amongst a tide of dreadfully - and on occasion even offensively - mediocre landfill superhero books were a small number of pleasantly inconsequential distractions. But overall, Before Watchmen was a laughably pathetic expression of corporate ignorance, incompetence and greed. Little if anything of substance, it seemed, had been learned from Watchmen at all, which says a great deal about how the opportunities thrown up by Moore and Gibbons' work have been repeatedly squandered by the industry over the past three decades. 8. Batman Year One, by Frank Miller & David Mazzuccelli et alFrank Miller's influence upon the superhero genre during the first eight years of his career was as profound as it was electrifying. Indeed, it might convincingly be argued that his footprint eclipses that of any other single creator on today's mainstream superhero books. (This is not always a particularly good thing, in that it's frequently the more facile aspects of Miller's best creative years that have appealed to his progeny) As such, there's a strong case for including several of Miller's most significant runs of the period here: his first tilt at Daredevil in 1979 to 1983, his return to the character in the mid-Eighties, and, of course, his epochal The Dark Knight Returns from 1986. Yet 1987's Batman: Year One - his last significant stylistic contribution to the genre - seems to me to be the most brilliant distillation of Miller's momentous contributions.Working with artist David Mazzucchelli's brilliant comics-noir storytelling, Miller's script delivered his most effective fusion of the crime and superhero genres, with the latter being expertly grounded in his adoration and understanding of Eisner's The Spirit.  The tale of how the young Bruce Wayne choose to become The Batman,  Batman: Year One is in many ways a stubbornly stiff and traditional tale. For all its glorious Gothic moodiness, it's a straight-forward crime yarn in which the corrupt are many, the irredeemably criminal are beyond the law, and the only choice is between absolute good and absolute evil. (Down these mean streets an honest, bat-eared man must walk, and so on.) Only the sorely tempted and then ultimately redeemed Jim Gordon emerges as anything close to a convincingly rounded character. Yet such is the pace and command of the storytelling that the tale never looses its capacity to beguile.  The result was a form of comics realism that would, in the coming decades, enable the superhero to prosper in both film and TV. Merged with the legitimacy and appeal of more conventional crime narratives, the superhero comic could now efficiently avoid embarrassing those who might associate costumes and powers with camp and juvenility. In the hands of master craftsmen such as Miller and Mazzucchelli, the result felt radical and compelling.  Totally eschewing the presence in the plot of super-villains, Year One suggested a minimal, straight-faced use of superhero conventions allied to a convincing if ersatz suggestion of social verism might indeed be a way to reach a broader audience. Year One was the last of the mid-80's superhero titles to break through to a broader readership. If it never had the wider reach of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, it has perhaps wielded a greater influence than either over the monthly superhero book itself. As a default approach for generations of lesser talents,  Miller and Mazzucchelli's masterwork has inspired decades of wearisomely bleak, po-faced tales that exult in brutality, hopelessness, reactionary self-pity and unleavened machismo. That there's more than a touch of irony about the importance of Batman Year One to the latter approach is undeniable. After all, Miller's tale was concerned with how a sense of hope and purpose might be clawed back from a thoroughly corrupt culture. (It's a theme Batman Year One shared, from its writer's ever-more right wing perspective, with both Daredevil: Born Again and The Dark Knight Returns.) That spirit of optimism would sadly be frequently missed by many of Miller and Mazzucchelli's imitators. Similarly, Year One tended to suggest rather than revel in violent excess, but that admirable and effective restraint has also frequently been ignored.  Optimism and indeed subtlety of any kind would also be regrettably absent from the majority of Frank Miller's later work. There, occasional bursts of stylistic audacity would be sadly placed into the service of ever-more reactionary - and finally patently Islamophobic - ideals. Mazzucchelli, his stint on the superhero book now wonderfully concluded, moved on successfully to projects in which costumed crimefighters were conspicuously absent.9. Marvels, by Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross et al (1994)Neither Watchmen nor Miller's Batman tales appear to have been designed as manifestos for the future development of the superhero form, but they were long taken as such. Sadly, the consequences of this have been typically malign. Nothing has been more typical of the superhero genre than the wrong lessons being learned from the very best exemplars. The commercial as well as artistic success of Moore, Gibbons, Miller and Mazzucchelli pointed to a need for a profound love of superheroes, a supreme level of craftmanship, and a fierce determination to challenge the genre's self-defeating conservatism. All too often, the lessons that were actually taken in led in exactly the wrong direction for all but a small niche of readers. For them, a spurious conception of realism, an adolescent obsession with despair-sodden hyper-violence and a deeply standpat attitude to change pointed the way to a bright future of perpetually despairing indulgence. Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels exemplifies the fightback during the Nineties against this still all-too-often dominant obsession with fan-blokeish excess. (Other notable acts of determined and inspired resistance could be found in Mark Waid's long run on The Flash and Grant Morrison's Justice League.) On the surface, Marvels could appear as concerned with the shallows of superhero-realism as any of the period's let's-do-it-for-the-fan-lads product. Yet Alex Ross' painted pages expressed an entirely different take on reality than was typical during the period. In truth, his work was quite unlike anything that the super-book had previously thrown up. Painters there had been before in the genre, and yet, none had drawn on the classic American tradition of illustration with the fondness and fidelity that he did. The result was a powerful suggestion of verisimilitude in which the superhero could seem as convincingly mundane as a litter-strewn sidewalk or a smoke-obscured newsroom. By the same token, that studied mundanity was also gloriously vivid and fresh. If Ross' art lacked by design the crisp, matter-of-fact quality of the moment as directly experienced, it did suggest the intensity of realworld events as experienced in flashbulb memories and wakening dreams. What better, for a tale that dealt with forty years of Marvel Comics history, to use an illustrative style that had traditionally suggested both wistfulness and verity?Once again, the genre moved forward by, as logic would demand, refusing to stand still. To see, for example, Marvel's take on Giant-Man striding across the rooftops of Manhattan was to experience a childlike sense of wonder for both super-bloke and metropolis liberated from decades of by-rote craftsmanship.  This wasn't realism, of course, but a deeply romantic approach laced heavily with nostalgia and fannish excitement. Ironically, an illustrative style that was largely long passe in the world beyond comics had convincingly brought every once-young fan's daydreams to life. This, Ross' pages suggested, is what it would really look like if childhood-imagined encounters with passing superheroes - real passing superheroes - could actually occur.As CGI would soon allow the movies to achieve, Ross' art helped to constrain the burden of imagination for the dedicated genre reader while delivering a significant measure of feeling and spectacle. To translate the work of the likes of Kirby and Ditko into a convincing vision of the everyday took a measure of conviction and determination. But the work of Ross dramatically reduced the effort needed to place the patently unreal - indeed impossible - into our ever-so mundane existence.The problem of disbelief had always limited the genre's reach. In Ross pages storred another potential strategy for escaping the deadend of ever-decreasing audiences. That his achievements were substantial and satisfying in their own right only made the future look all the more exciting. to be concluded, with reference to Kurt Busiek's splendid script for Marvels and a discussion of four titles from the 21st century.

Superhero Comics 101: The Spirit, Spider-Man, Superman, The Forever People, The Defenders (Part 1 of 7)
Time tends to make traditionalists of us all. We may not buy into anyone else's conservatism, but we're still likely to generate a backwards-looking orthodoxy of our own. That which we've enjoyed ossifies into canon, and canon is all too easily taken as a statement of what's acceptable and what's not. With that in mind, I'll readily admit that what follows is a patently absurd business. Yet, with TooBusyThinking winding down, and the new blog which will partially replace it still taking shape, there's a few old ideas that I'd like to work through before I'm finished here. What follows is one of them.The superhero comic has been with us for 80 years or so. How could anyone starting largely from scratch begin to come to grips with all of that history? After all, there's so much more than just superhero comics to get to grips with, and yet, getting properly to grips with the costumed crimefighter tradition would be challenging enough in itself. From such idle speculation came the idea of baker's dozen of the most inspiring and illuminating superhero strips since 1938's Action Comics #1. If we only had 13 examples of the genre to pick from, how could we possibly choose? The very absurdity of the task appealed even as it intimidated. These wouldn't be the supposedly best stories, or even the tales by the supposedly best creators. Nor would the list attempt to include examples of as great a number of stylistic approaches as the format allowed. By its very nature, just about every creator and comic would be absent from the list, while its contents would inevitably tend towards the exceptionally familiar.  Mea culpa. The conceit would simply offer thirteen approaches which, taken together, might function as a helpful basic tool-kit for solving practical problems in today's super-books.Or at least, might function as such in the unlikely event that anyone shared my own entirely untrustworthy brand of backwards-looking orthodoxy.No matter how playful the intentions, this is - of course - a daft and presumptuous idea. But it's still a compelling if quite impossible business, and, after all, what's the last few weeks of a blog for if not that? It's tempting to opt for the kind of rain-sodden noir page that's now frequently associated with Eisner, but the above page from September 1948's The Story Of Gerhard Shnobble shows another side of The Spirit's appeal. The tale itself is a wonderfully perverse fusion of the absurd and despairing, and its storytelling would shame many a 21st century book. Just to take a moment to enjoy the above page is to perceive an almost lost command of daring, capability and pathos.  1. The Spirit, by the Will Eisner Studio (1945 to 1952)Every syllabus is grounded in presumption, and I'll be frank about mine; Will Eisner's post-war work on The Spirit is by far the most brilliant and important superhero strip there's ever been. Working with a host of often extraordinary and always highly competent collaborators, Eisner developed both the form and content of his superhero/crime mashup in a host of remarkable ways. Yet for all his astonishing ambition, daring and achievement, The Spirit remained a series of perfectly self-contained and satisfying seven page stories that welcomed the general reader who knew nothing of the character or indeed comics themselves. Eisner often bemoaned the commercial compromise that led to his weekly, seven-page newspaper strip featuring a superheroic lead. Yet the tension between his desire to tell adult stories and the pop-culture framework of the superhero-starring tales created stories that were as immediate as they were thoughtful. What a later generation might see as a substantial dash of magical realism allowed The Spirit to speak to adult audiences in a broad variety of genres and tones. From hard science fiction to the sweetest of romances, The Spirit ranged daringly across story-types while always delivering tales that were accessible, entertaining and thought-provoking.Eisner's breathtaking storytelling has often and rightly been praised from its ambition and effectiveness. His desire to inform comics with lessons learnt from illustration, 'high' art, theatre and especially film resulted in work that constantly pushed the boundaries of the form. Regrettably, it's a little less common to hear praise for his determined capacity to develop his craft while consistently connecting with a mass audience. The superhero comic, if not the superhero film, has become more and more of a niche pursuit. As it's turned away from the broader audience, it's become less and less welcoming to the general, inexpert reader. To study Eisner is to be inspired that those decades of wilful isolationism can be reversed. After all, it's no accident that the few superhero comics which have broken through to mass acceptance - Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns - were crafted by writers and artists who'd studied Eisner in depth.  Yet to read the majority of today's superhero comics, you'd imagine that a significant number of today's creators know little of The Spirit at all. How else to explain the frequent absence of so many of the multitude of problem-solving approaches that might be gleamed from it? If all that remained of the genre was The Spirit, the form could be rebuilt from a careful study of Eisner's stories. It might even turn out to be a more ambitious and invigorating form than we often see peddled in comic shops today. Even the highly regrettable racism that flares up on occasion in The Spirit can serve as a vital lesson in how humane ideals can be terribly undermined by unexamined prejudice.Reading the whole of Eisners' considerable output during this period would be a taxing business. (It would also involve reading the lull in the quality of the feature that occured in late 1951 and early 1952.) But if I might suggest five stories, totalling just 35 pages, then they would be March 1946's The Last Trolley, November 1947's Crime Is A River, September 1948's The Story Of Gerhard Shnobble,  January 1950's Sand Seref, and July 1952's Outer Space . November 1961's Superman 149, with its cover by Curt Swan and Shelly Moldoff. 2. The Death Of Superman, by Siegel, Swan, Weisinger et al (1961)An out-of-continuity tale that told of the Man Of Steel's assassination by Lex Luthor, The Death Of Superman still retains its power to move as well as surprise the reader. With a ruthless logic that leads to a pathos-drenched conclusion, the script by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel reveals that Superman's fatal flaw is his Christian faith in human redeemability. Cast as both Judas and Satan to Kal-El's Christ, Luthor first convinces Superman that he's reformed and then mercilessly slays him. Unlike the post-1985 descent of the superhero genre into crass extremes of bleakness and blood-thirstiness, Siegel and the masterful penciller Curt Swan play out their tragedy with restraint grounded in magnanimity. For all of that, this is hardly a tale lacking in drama and spectacle. Perhaps drawing on film of the early days of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem during the year for genocide, Siegel crafts a tale-closing trial of the unrepentant Luthor by the Krypton citizens of Kando that's a masterpiece of tension and unexpected twists. (Swan's depiction of the gloating murderer anticipating his freedom remains one of the greatest single frames in comics history, a subtle and chilling depiction of a sociopath in what he wrongly believes to be his moment of triumph.)Without the slightest sign of the influence of Lee, Kirby and Ditko's then-nascent Marvel Revolution, The Death Of Superman exemplifies the very best of traditional superhero storytelling. More than that, it shows - even at this distance in time - how vital and poignant such an approach still can be. The characters are essentially one-dimensional stereotypes, but Siegel uses that to discuss one of childhood's greatest fears, namely, the loss of a parent or carer. If even a figure as reliable, constant and noble as Superman can fail, then what is there to rely on and believe in? In The Death Of Superman , the loss of the Man Of Steel leads not to a collapse of principle amongst those closest to him, but rather to its rededication. As Siegel's script implies, no man or woman survives forever, but their influence can long outlive them. As powerful a morality tale as it remains for adult readers today, its effect upon its original, youthful audience must have often been remarkable. For all that the Superman books of the period lacked any strict sense of what would now be called continuity, they possessed a remarkably rich variety of supporting characters and fantastical set-ups. With a willingness to frequently discuss themes that might disturb as well as entertain, the Man Of Steel's adventures under the guiding hand of editor Mort Weisinger could be surprisingly touching and intriguing. By all accounts, Weisinger was a frequently cruel and callous manager. Sadly for those of us who'd like to associate lessons worth learning with admirable teachers, there's still much to be said for key aspects of his approach. More importantly, the achievements of the professionals who toiled under Weisinger's autocratic rule have left a host of fascinating stories that stand as some of the most enthralling and moving in the genre's history. .June 1965's Amazing Spider-Man #25, cover by Steve DitkoNo single Sixties Marvel comic displays the virtues of the company's then-new and revolutionary approach so effectively as does Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's Captured By J Jonah Jameson. Instead of a clash of one-dimensional ideals, as had been typical for the superhero genre up until then, Marvel injected a second dimension of personal neuroses which drove their characters into ever-more entertaining and moving personal conflict. It was an approach which could, and soon typically would, swing from pathos to bathos, but it's shown at its very best in 1965's Amazing Spider-Man #25.  Another done-in-one tale that's rich, complex and highly satisfying, it features a collision between Peter Parker's school and work-life as newspaper owner J Jonah Jameson hires a scientific genius to track down Spider-Man. Not only is the tale packed with incident, but character rather than spectacle-for-its-own-sake is what drives the storytelling.For all that the superhero comic is frequently defined as a pathetic exercise in wish-fulfilment, Amazing Spider-Man presented a far more nuanced experience. Caught between school and employment, childhood and adulthood, powerlessness and a complex series of taxing personal dilemmas, Peter Parker represented not wish-fulfilment so much as adolescence's endless and irreconcilable conflicts. For all that his costumed conflicts could be thrilling, they rarely ended in definitive victories.  Even when they did, Parker's private life remained a series of frustrations and disappointments. As such, this was escapism laced with a hefty charge of realism. It was a take on teenage life that had little to do with the eternal summer of the likes of Archie Comics, in which the same players returned happily to the same high school set-up for decade upon decade. Characters in Amazing Spider-Man not only aged, but changed, and life rarely if ever treated them with undiluted kindness. It was a radical shift in the very essence of the super-book that sparked a giddy sense of excitement. What might possibly happen next? As such, Ditko and Lee's work on the character really did offer something new under the sun; the superhero as metaphor for a specific and inescapably trying life-experience.As with Eisner, Ditko and Lee used Spider-Man to tell tales of everyday conflicts and quickly-passing triumphs. Effectively the plotter as well as the artist by this time, Ditko's ability to set and solve complex narrative problems with his ingenuity shines out from every multi-panel page, while Lee's script remains playful, compelling and frequently hilarious. Strangely, all-too-few few of today's superhero tales attempt to follow their example of using the superhero tale to explore mundane reality. If any superhero series might vie with The Spirit for the title of the genre's most impressive achievement, it would be Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga. Told through four inter-locking titles published from late 1970 to early 1974, it pioneered a mythos that described the epic war between immensely powerful gods of New Genesis and Apolokips. Within that framework, Kirby investigated the corrupting effects of totalitarian ideology while spinning an audaciously ambitious superhero epic. In doing so, Kirby refined and further developed the Sci-Fi/Fantasy conceits that he'd brilliantly put to use during the Sixties in Marvel titles such as the Fantastic Four and Thor. More inspiring yet, he embedded his tales in the political debates of the turn-of-the Seventies. Fascinated and inspired by the age's counter-culture, Kirby raged against militarism, consumerism, predatory politicians and the excesses of the mass media. Of course, Kirby had repeatedly established himself as a comics genius in the long decades of achievement prior to The Fourth World, and yet nothing in his exceptional catalogue can match it for its singular, shocking brilliance. (It was largely through the influence of Kirby's work that the sub-genre of 'cosmic' superhero tales began to be perceived as a distinct tradition.)The Fourth World is a landslide of new characters and concepts, designed to function as a comics novel in which characters might change, and even die, as they always had in the likes of novels and films.  So heady is the rush of Kirby's radical new ideas and approaches during these years that his stories can almost seem intimidating in their invention and ambition. Concepts that other creators might have used to establish a long running status quo were here burned through and replaced by ever-more audacious set-ups.  But for all that the series was concerned with an apocalyptic showdown on Earth between two halves of a warring alien race, Kirby's Fourth World stories are as notable for their moments of quiet as they are for their thunderous punch-ups, for their philosophical curiosity as much as their daring sturm und drang set-pieces. Nor are these comfortable tales wherein the triumph of good feels complacently assured. At moments, as in Darkseid's apparent execution of The Forever People or Orion and Lightray's desperate confrontation with the Deep Six, there's a sense of absolute dread and awe in the face of the unknown that few have ever come close to emulating. In recent years, many have conspicuously claimed to be working in the tradition of Kirby, and yet, it's a struggle to mention more than a handful of creators who've grasped the substance rather than the surface show of his achievements.For those intimidated by the prospect of the four collected volumes that make up The Fourth World saga in reprint, I might suggest four classic tales: Orion and The Deep Six, from New Gods #5 and 6; Himon, from Mister Miracle #9; The Pact, from New Gods #7: and The Prisoners Of The Power, from The Forever People #8.  1976's The Defenders 36, cover by Gil Kane and Mike EspositoThe first half of Steve Gerber's run on The Defenders in 1974/5 is peppered by smart moments and principled stands rather than consistently outstanding storytelling. But his final year on the book reclaimed for the superhero the sense of thought-provoking strangeness that the ubiquity of the Marvel method had, for all its successes, started to erode. In doing so, he also injected a degree of character that the super-book had as yet never previously seen. Reframing The Defenders as a group of traumatised individuals being surreptitiously supported by Doctor Strange, Gerber hurled the team of misfits into conflicts with a series of disconcertingly absurd antagonists. As an encounter group rather than a  standard-issue fighting team, The Defenders suddenly possessed the air of uniqueness that had previously escaped them. Their gallery of super-villains also became corresponding weird and purposeful. From the vainglorious Headmen, who'd mutilated their own bodies in search of power, to the New Age philosophising of Nebulon, these villains satirically expressed the confusion and unease of the current affairs of the Seventies. Yet for all of that, Marvel's characters had rarely seemed as charmingly, fallibly human. Gerber excelled at identifying and expressing his character's personal agendas in such a way as to make even the least promising figures appear compelling. Politically sharp and consistently entertaining, Gerber's issues showed how a team of disparate and only marginally popular characters could be winningly lent their own identity and sense of purpose.Of course, the superhero comic cannot help but be political.  Whenever a character is shown to be taking the law into their own hands, there are inevitably questions raised about the manner in which society is, and self-evidently, fulfilling its obligations. The genre had begun with the populism of Siegel and Shuster's Superman and swiftly been used to express the idiosyncratic feminism of Marston and Peter's Wonder Woman. The superhero industry would soon shiver away from anything so contentious as questioning social content, but throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the superhero comic would often been used deliberately to express deeply-held political convictions. From the introduction of the Black Panther in Kirby and Lee's Fantastic Four to the partisan playing out of a radical agenda in O'Neil and Adams' Green Lantern/Green Arrow, the costumed crimefighter had become more and more a deliberate - if often confused and simplistic - expression of humanist beliefs. But Gerber's work in his last year on The Defenders is an example of a more subtle if no less heartfelt approach to combining politics and superheroes. It encompasses the personal and the political all at the same time, and does so in a way that avoids the sometimes-alienating sense of the pulpit and the soapbox. For all their withering satire, Gerber never slipped into cynicism or partiality. At all times, his faith in humanity remained as fiercely obvious as did his weariness at the species' constant propensity towards ignorance and injustice.  As he never hesitated to express, Gerber was fortunate to be pared with the old-school storytelling of Sal Buscema for these stories. Buscema's fierce schedule as a layout artist for Marvel prevented him from delivering much that was spectacular, but his careful, clear and compelling pages ensured that Gerber's out-there tales always remained comprehensible and involving. When pared with sympathetic inkers such as Klaus Janson, the result could be beguiling. As with the pages of Superman artist Curt Swan, no-one ever needed to struggle to follow Buscema's pages. For them, the story was everything. For all that their approach is today often regarded as unfashionably pedestrian, there's much to be said for its virtues. As out-there as Gerber's work could be, and The Defenders is frequently and disconcertingly out-there, Buscema made sure that events could always be understood and enjoyed.Seen in a particular light, Claremont and Byrne's Days Of Future Past can seem like nothing more important than a textbook summarising much of the best and some of the very worst of the genre's preceding twenty years. Byrne's art fuses the work of Kirby and Neal Adams - long the superbook's two dominating visual influences - in a highly efficient and entertaining way that smooths out his progenitors' eccentricities. Similarly, Claremont's style amped up the Stan Lee's love of melodrama while embracing many the genre's longest-standing conventions. Yet Days Of Future Past can also read as if it were the Ur-Text for a great deal of the mainstream's subsequent output until the present day. The roots of the superhero book's long fascination with what's become known as 'grim and gritty' tales are many and difficult to untwine. But in this tale of a future Earth in which a fascist genocide of the mutant race has already occurred, Claremont and Byrne popularly established a tradition of alt-world tales in which all manner of appalling things could be inflicted upon hapless superheroes. Unlike many of their successors, however, Claremont and Byrne successfully fused the bombastic with the sensitive and the meaningful, and Days Of Future Past is still - for all it's been constantly strip mined for lesser purposes since - a powerful and admirably succinct story.Reading lists aren't by their very nature nought but a record of remarkable innovation. Sometimes the way in which a genre's traditions are reframed is as important as radical new developments. The Claremont/Byrne run on X-Men is of significance for many reasons; an admirable respect for female characters, a passionate concern with social justice played out through metaphor, a concerted attempt to develop the super-book without losing its traditional appeal, a winning fascination with continuity as story-tool rather than fan-indulgence, and so on. In that, Claremont and Byrne reshaped the superhero comic without revolutionising it. The consequences of this echo loudly down to the present day, with Days Of Future Past in particular being in many ways the cornerstone of so much of today's superhero tales. Escaping its influence, or at least merging it with new inputs, has challenged creators ever since. If a neophyte were to ask for a single story which best summed up the history of the genre in film as much as comics since the early 80s, then Days Of Future Past would surely be it. More than even Watchmen and Frank Miller's epochal Batman tales, this is the most influential comicbook still directly affecting the content of today's monthlies. For our purposes, it's also an example of a supreme competency that provides the context for remarkable sequences. Claremont and Byrne weren't geniuses of the order of Eisner and Kirby, and, by all accounts, would never claim to be. But together, they created work that was so consistently able that moments of brilliance would inevitably - and laudably - occur.  Days Of Future Past, it's hard not to believe, should be the bar which all superhero tales aspire to reach as a matter of course.Less cheerfully, Days Of Future Past marks the triumph of the superhero comic that's pretty much concerned with no-one but superheroes. Where Ditko and Lee's Spider-Man featured a single costumed crimefighter in the context of a commonplace existence, the X-Men of the 80s focused on a huge cast of mutants who had little if any lasting involvement in the everyday world. By the 21st century, the corporate superhero comic would largely - if not exclusively - concern itself with little beyond a large class of superhumans and their fantastical existence. I suspect there's a significant correlation between that and the continuing cultural  peripherilisation of the superhero comic.  to be completed;

40 More Splendid Comic Book Panels
From 1970's The Flash #201, by Robert Kanigher & Murphy Anderson, in which quinquagenarians Iris & Jay Garrick attend Earth 2's version of Woodstock. (Rather wry, that the Spiked General's lyrics appear to be gently mocking the Make War No More tag-line that had been added to all of DC's war stories during the period.)For almost four months now, the TooBusyThinking Tumblr has featured a Comics Panel Of The Day. I've posted a collection of those frames here at TBT before,  and what follows is nothing less or more than the panels which have gone up at the Tumblr since. If you've a moment to fill, I hope this does the job....Rock and roll infiltrates the English comprehensve school: From The Bash Street Kids, by, I presume, Leo Baxendale, as reprinted - without any credits or further information - in 2004′s Beano & The Dandy - Focus On The Fifties.From Uzumaki (Spiral), by Junji Ito. Originally printed in Japan in 1988/9, the above is scanned from the 2010 English language edition by Viz.From 2014′s Better Days in Detective Comics #27, by Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Betram et alFrom 1974′s Sugar Jones, as appeared in the Pink Annual 1975. Sadly, the creators went uncredited.From 2014′s Abigail and the Snowman #1, by Roger Langridge.From 2015′s E Is For Extinction #3, by Chris Burnham, Dennis Culver, Ramon Villalobos, Ian Herring et al.From 2006′s The Arrival, by Shaun Tan.From 1963′s The Incredible Hulk #6, by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko et al.From 1973′s Rupert Annual by Alfred E Bestall, his final bow on the character.From 1976′s The Eternals #1, by Jack Kirby with John Verpoorten, Gaspar & Glynis Wein.From 2015′s Abe Sapien #23, by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie, Kevin Nowlan et al.From 1977′s Mrs Weber’s Diary newspaper strip, by the great Posy Simmonds.From Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Chapter 10, by Pat Mills, Brian Bolland et al, as printed in 1978′s 2000AD #70.From 1999′s Star Spangled Comics #1, by Chris Weston, Geoff Johns et al.From The Sleeper Shall Awake!, in December 1965’s Tales Of Suspense #72, by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, George Tuska et alFrom Splodge by, I believe, Ken H. Harrison, as published in The Beano Book 2002.From 31/7/1944′s Johnny Hazard by Frank Robbins. From 2010′s Thor The Mighty Avenger #1, by Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee, Matthew Wilson et al.From 2003′s Jeremiah: Mercenaries, by Hermann.From 1983′s Chronocops, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, from 2000AD # 310.From The Mystery Legionnaire, by Jerry Siegel, John Forte et al, which appeared in 1963′s Adenture Comics #305.From 2015′s Kaijumax #1, by Zander Cannon.From Our Sheriff’s An Ape, as printed in The Beezer Book 1971, creator/s sadly uncredited.From 2011′s Wolverine: Debt Of Death, by David Lapham, David Aja, Bettie Breitweiser et al.From 1979′s The Super Friends #24, by Denny O’Neil, Ramona Fradon, Bob Smith etc al.From the 2011 collected edition of Alan Grant & Arthur Ranson’s Mazeworld, with this frame having originally been published during 1998 in 2000AD. From a 1964 instalment of Dick Tracy, by Chester Gould, as reprinted in 1990′s Dick Tracy: America’s Most Famous Detective.From 1998′s Chronos #1, by John Francis Moore, Paul Guinan, Steve Leialoha et al.From 2014′s Regular Show: Disaster 20, by Jake Wyatt, as published in Kaboom! Summer Blast!From 1964′s Aquaman #18, by Jack Miller, Nick Cardy etc al.From 1947′s Crime Toughest Guy, by Peter Treadway & George Tuska, from Crime Does Not Pay #54.From 1993′s adaptation of the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula, by Mike Mignola, Roy Thomas, John Nyberg et al.From1998′s Madman/The Jam #1, by Mike Allred, Bernie Mireault et al. From 1959′s Roy Of The Rovers: Spend A Day With Roy Race, as reprinted in 2009′s The Second Bumper Book Of Roy Of The Rovers, which sadly failed to mention either who created the strips or where the stories originally appeared.From 1997′s Star Seed, by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Howard Porter et al, as printed in JLA Secret Files #1.From 2000′s Streetwise, by Nick Cardy.From 1969′s Wonder Woman #184, by Mike Sekowsky, Dick Giordano et al.From The Stealer in Whoopee! Annual 1975, whose creators, I’m sad to say, went uncredited.From 1985′s Johnny Nemo Magazine #1, by Peter Milligan & Brett Ewins, as reprinted in 1989′s Johnny Nemo from Deadline Books.From 1971's The Flash #209,  by Cary Bates, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano et al.

Some Thoughts On 2014's 'The Flash: Pilot'
The pilot episode of The Flash appears to quiver with a determination to succeed that's frequently indistinguishable from desperation. As if unaware that superhero tales are the mainstream's money-spinning order of the day, the show's creators kick off with a palpable resolve to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Perhaps that anxiety is nought but the product of some remarkably flat writing, and perhaps that was the result of a diktat or twelve imposed from higher up the production processes' chain of suits. But whatever its cause, the result is a story that's repeatably both timid and banal.Neither lead actor Grant Gustin's considerable charm nor the sporadic brio of the action sequences can fully compensate for the production's safety-first assumption that the audience is emotionally and imaginatively stunted. Accordingly, The Flash: Pilot is a show that tells us what to think and feel, and then, with all the deliberateness of a ploddingly patient remedial teacher, tells us all over again. More patronising yet, it swiftly signals up that whatever thoughts and emotions are going to be suggested will be reassuringly stripped of all complexity and intensity. The shock of the new, or even of the convincingly heartfelt, will just have to shock elsewhere. The cast are predictably handsome when not outrageously beautiful, comfortable, uncomplicated, and, through no fault of their own, almost entirely facile. Even those rare moments which stray close to feeling, such as the young Barry Allen's beating in the programme's first five minutes, are kept free of anything that might actually disturb. Has there ever been a pummelling in a small-screen drama marketed at adults that's so utterly denuded of pain and humiliation? It's violence as an exercise in threat-stripped nostalgia, an obvious feint of pathetically faked punches and notably absent sound-effects. Since the previous scene had already joyously declared that Allen is eventually to become the fastest man alive, his younger self's faux-mauling carries no threat at all. All this will soon be over. None of this will truly matter. Desperate not to overly tax our minds or hearts, The Flash protects the viewer from all uncertainty and despair beyond the passing mystery of Harrison Wells' somewhat suspicious behaviour. When the fundamentally agreeable Guskin is onscreen, it's impossible not to empathise with The Flash's boilerplate dilemmas. But in the moments when he's absent, and with the glorious menace of Tom Cavanagh's Reverse Flash as yet hidden from view, the show sits as flat as any run-of-the-mill, pre-Whedon bubble of affectless inconsequentially. The obviousness of the production's faintheartedness extends to its attempts to project Pilot as something other than a superhero show. Yet embedding The Flash in the least challenging traditions of the police procedural only lends Pilot an unhelpful air of obsolescence. Rather than delivering a sense of comforting 21st century familiarity, it stupefies with its archaic inappropriateness. (By contrast, 1981's Hill Street Blues makes the pilot's approach look profoundly conservative in both style and substance.) Equally, striving for an old-school Western's approach to the framing of showdowns when Allen and weather-controlling meanie Clyde Mardon clash only amplifies the sense of timourness. Lifting a hint of Sherlock Holmes' eccentricities without the slightest suggestion of inspiration, Barry Allen's superior deductive abilities are supposedly established by having him lie eccentrically on a sidewalk while sniffing a trace of 'fecal matter'. So artless is the appropriation that any sense of Allen as an individual dissolves into this poor impersonation of a pop-culture icon.These aren't examples of post-modern playfulness so much as a worn-through patchwork of barely warmed-over cliches being idly substituted for craft and imagination. For all the occasional verve of The Flash's action sequences, and despite the periodic and promising attempts to ground the action in urban mundanity, the overall result is a tame expression of bottom-line fearfulness. Put up with the silliness of the superhero material, we seem to be being assured, and the showrunners of The Flash will ensure it delivers a reassuring mass of numbingly familiar humdrum. It's a calculation that appears to assume that fans of superheroics will put up with any amount of mediocrity in return for five minutes of costumes-on action and a general lack of scorn for the broadest conventions of the genre. To the makers of The Flash, the problem seems to be all those other millions of potential viewers, who care little if anything at all for super-people and their super-quarrels, while appearing to want nothing more than nothing much at all from their viewing. Least appealing of all is the show's script, which, laced with a deadening weight of earnestness and bromide, reduces every actor's role to its melodramatic fundamentals. Characters such as Caitlin Snow, Joe West and Eddie Thawne never rise above the status of the least substantial type, although they do at least offer easily-identifiable stereotypes for the cast to inhabit. But John Wesley Snipp, as The Flash's long-imprisoned father, is called upon to impersonate the human equivalent of a weather-beaten woollen square upon which oldy-worldly homilies have been ham-fistedly sown. The poor man does his best. "I love you son", Snipp declares in the pilot, as if the audience needs emotional truths spelt out as one might the contents of a shopping list for a sadly occluded child. Of course, Guskin is lent a matching declaration of  love in return, for there are no hidden depths in The Flash, where sub-text and text are nearly always one and the same. If there's a tragedy at play in that scene, it's that of two able actors being asked to emote with such little material to rely upon. That love might be displayed rather than declaimed, and that the audience might have the patience to watch such a relationship unfolding, clearly never occurs to the pilot's makers.Similarly, when the brutally martyred Mrs Allen appears briefly in flashback, she's seen through a haze of techno-Vaseline and obscured by a saint's entirely unsullied virtue. With nothing of the unsettling distance between reality and perfection suggested by a Norman Rockwell painting of a family Christmas dinner, the Allens are so tritely angelic that they inspire only snickering and yawns. Even little Barry is already a moral paragon, perpetually taking punches in defiance of the bullies who prey on his uncool classmates. Where can a character go, when he's already a superhero-in-waiting while in primary school?Show not tell would surely be a tenet of the Wise Old Owl, and few must be the number of Film Studies courses that would pass a script so determinedly ladened in exposition as Pilot. When Caitlan Snow's private suffering is revealed, it's reeled out as a flatly literal litany of loss. When Barry Allen encounters the Reverse Flash in his disguise of Harrison Wells, he announces that he's 'always wanted to meet' the elder man. When Iris West meets Allen for the first time after his nine months in a coma, she declares that he's 'awake', as if the blindingly evident observation might underscore her qualities as a journalist. When Joe West and Allen clash over the identity of a mystery super-villain, the ensuing argument spells out twenty years of backstory in painfully literal soap-speak. And so on, and on. Only rarely is action allowed to trump speechifying. When Doctor Snow ineptly greets the freshly-awakened Allen with a request for him to pee into a test-tube, her guilelessness reveals something of her personality. In that moment, we're trusted to pay attention and rewarded with a chuckle too.  A rare, passing marker of competency, it suggest the writers lacked only the will to polish their beats into a serviceable drama. With no little irony, it's the stuff of the superhero genre that, combined with Gustin's gee-whiz-me charisma, ends up saving the show. Whether it's his wrist-breaking test run in an absurdly bare-limbed experimental get-up or his bafflement at racing cross-country in a second, the mix of modest protagonist with absurdly prodigious abilities beguiles. Chad Rock's given no chance to convince, let alone shine, as the run-of-the-mill psychopath that's the episode's protagonist, and yet, in the very same frames, Gustin's bravery and vulnerability charms as it convinces. It's this performance that stays in the mind after Pilot's credits close, a portrayal of a superhero that's second only to Christopher Reeves as Superman. In his wake, a small but promising scattering of costumed crimefighter traditions appear all the more convincing and compelling; a newspaper from the future, a mysterious secret hideout, a developing population of superhumans, the red skies of a crisis, the suggestion of a yellow-costumed speedster at the scene of Mrs Allen's murder, and so on. These would be the generic qualities that would ensure the first season's success, while the safety net of all those primetime cliches would prove to have never been necessary in the first place. In a world in which three of the highest grossing movies of all time are superhero films from the past few years, who could ever have imagined differently?

Reading For Absences; On Growing Up With Comics That Didn't Remotely Reflect America - A Friday Guest Post By Osvaldo Oyola
This week's Friday guest post is an autobiographical piece by Osvaldo Oyola that's as insightful as it's charming. Chatting with Osvaldo in the comment boxes of posts here at TooBusyThinking has always been a pleasure, and his thought-provoking blog The Middle Spaces is one I regularly visit and enjoy. With a shameful degree of chutzpah, I asked Osvaldo if he'd consider writing about the stories that had caused his youthful self to question the way in which comics represent society. Graciously, he set about the task and I couldn't be more chuffed with the result. For many of us who grew up in Britain reading American comics, New York was a kind of wonderland. As such, Osvaldo's account of not just growing up in NYC, but reading and questioning comicbooks there carries a real charge of fascination. You can find Osvaldo on Twitter here. In addition to his own blog, he's also contributed to The Hooded Utilitarian blog and Bronze Age Babes too. Issues from 1982 of Amazing Spider-Man, by Roget Stern, John Romoita Jr et alWhen I think about becoming aware of the fact that, despite my love of superhero comics, they did not remotely reflect the New York City, the America, I grew up living in, I think of Amazing Spider-Man #235. I was mostly a Marvel Comics kid, so there was no recourse to claiming that Metropolis is not a real place, even if we all know it is supposed to be one view of New York, just as Gotham is another. Marvel was supposed to be “The World Outside Your Window,” but the more I learned to really look, the harder it became to believe that claim. ASM #235 came out in August of 1982, so I was entering 6th grade. There is nothing particularly socially relevant about the Roger Stern-penned issue (with pencils by John Romita. Jr.), but it was the first time I sought out a comic because it had a Latino character - Tarantula. (I’ve briefly written about this before when I wrote an overview of my collecting practices.) My friend and classmate Reynaldo told me he’d gotten Amazing Spider-Man #233 and that it featured a guy that might be Puerto Rican.  We couldn’t be sure (and it’d turn out we were wrong), but it was the first time either of us had noticed a character who spoke in the mix of Spanish and English that we did in our day to day lives. To quote what I wrote last year, “So what if he was a villain? For a moment his visibility in the Marvel Universe was our visibility. We were being fed a stereotypical Latin American revolutionary villain type who turns out to be just another greedy thief, but our hunger for representation made the possibilities he represented delicious…with his pointy shoes, red outfit and bandanna, Tarantula was not all that different from some of the sketchy neighborhood characters we feared and admired.”From Amazing Spider-Man #135Yes, Tarantula was first introduced way back in the early 70s, but we didn’t know that. Everything in the world of superhero comics was fresh and new to us. What did we know of White Tiger—Marvel’s first Puerto Rican superhero—and his cancelled series in the 1970s Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu mag, who would not even be allowed to be a hero without developing a junkie’s personality regarding his powers?   From 1976's Deadly Hands Of Kung Fu, cover by Bob Larkin, White Tiger tale by Bill Mantlo, Keith Giffen, Rivo Rival et alPerhaps Tarantula was a sign of something I would not have been able to even verbalize until I got my hands on Amazing Spider-Man #235, the need for the Marvel Universe to reflect something more like the world I existed in. Suddenly, the stark absence of Latino characters was made real by the presence of a C-lister who would turn out to be from a fictional country.  Maybe Tarantula was a sign of the progress we’d been promised, the narrative we’d absorbed unthinkingly that the world would come to accept us more, that we could be whatever we wanted, without knowing that the dominant culture decides what the world looks like regardless of what we might see with our eyes and experience for ourselves.  All you need do is consider how there is still no Latino equivalent of even Black second-string characters like Luke Cage and Black Panther to understand the degree to which such representation is a low priority in the superhero milieu (even Miles Morales doesn’t count, the kid can’t do it all alone, and as far as I know the Brian Michael Bendis has never bothered to explore Miles’ relationship to his Latinidad). To a couple of 11-year old Puerto Rican kids Amazing Spider-Man#235 seemed like a moment of promise, but was really a seed for ongoing cognitive dissonance.1972's Marvel's Greatest Comics #39, cover by Jim Starlin, Joe Sinnott et al, interior by Kirby, Lee, Sinnott et alEarlier that same summer I was introduced to the Black Panther. Well, not introduced;I knew he existed and had seen him in a few older issues of Avengers and maybe an issue of Marvel Team-Up, but that summer I scored a box of Kirby-era Fantastic Four tales as reprinted in the pages of Marvel’s Greatest Comics. MGC #39 represented the first appearance of T’Challa and the FF’s visit to Wakanda and I was fascinated by his need to prove himself against Marvel’s First Family. Black Panther was the kind of character who stood apart from the rest of the superhero world, and even if later he’d be just as wrapped up in the assumptions of American Exceptionalism as any other superhero comic character, I sensed there was something special about him. Despite joining the Avengers or becoming a teacher in a New York City public school (things they’d had him do way after his first appearances), his very presence and the existence of Wakanda made those editorial choices seem strange even to my young mind. An African character couldn’t exist in his own world, for his own sake, but had to be made to matter in terms of our own. I wouldn’t read Don McGregor’s Jungle Action run of Black Panther until just last year, and if you ask me, the stories are no better being set in Wakanda. The unspoken assumptions about African people echo loudly.Kirby, Lee & Sinnott's Fantastic Four #52, from where the reprint in MGC#39 originated.I found those issues of Marvel’s Greatest Comics at an outdoor flea market near Chinatown in a stall full of boxes and boxes of comics—more comics than I’d ever seen in one place before. Most of the comics were priced out of my range (or at least out of the range within which I could convince my mom to pay for them­—I didn’t have an allowance), but nearly 10 year old reprint comics were affordable at something like 25 cents apiece. These days they are probably worth less than the paper they’re printed on, but they were invaluable to me. Calling out to my mom to come find me where wherever she was browsing, I anxiously waited by the box, afraid the issues might disappear if I went to go find her.  It was near closing time and the sky was threatening rain. The guys running the stall were already packing up (explaining why I was able to negotiate a good price for the already cheap comics. I’d leave with nearly 40 issues for less than 10 bucks). My cries caught the attention of people around me. Among them, strangely enough, was a newswoman for a local cable news program and her cameraman, doing a local interest story about the flea market. I didn’t know what cable TV was—it hadn’t reached Brooklyn, yet—but when she asked me if I wanted to be on TV I didn’t hesitate. Suddenly, I was being expected to answer questions about the comics I collected—questions I had never really considered before. In that moment—though it would only be clear to me many many years later when comics would become a crucial part of my scholarship—I was being asked for the first time to express my expertise with comics, which meant I had to develop a vocabulary for one. I may have had an 11-year old’s limited conception of the imbricated layers of comic industry, art, and cultural practice, but I was also deeply embedded in a moment that would in retrospect demonstrate how all three could shape identity—their influence spreading both into the private domain I created by piecing together comic narratives as I started to see myself as a “collector,” and out into a public world where the cultural weight of these characters and the economic reality of the industry determined their availability for use in that private imaginative world.  I never got to see that news segment, and thus myself on TV. I don’t even have a way of knowing if that interview ended up on the air, but whatever I said (I don’t even remember) felt important, and clearly there is no overestimating the importance of Jack “King” Kirby on comics, but it was a crucial moment for me both in the discovery itself and the circumstances surrounding it. I started thinking about why I sought out the comics I enjoyed.1984's Power Pack #1, by Louise Simonson, June Brigman, Bob Wiacek et alI don’t remember why I sought out Power Pack #1 when it came out (in 1984), but I loved it. I followed that series as closely as I could follow any series back then, before the days of access to a comic shop, direct distribution, a pull-list and a direct source of income. Of course, I couldn’t rave about it too much at the time: liking a comic about four vanilla kids would not have been cool. But having recently collected the entire Louise Simonson-penned run and re-read it, I find it really holds up and it is clear to me what was so appealing to me about it at age 13. It treated kids with respect. It captured the voices of children, was a comic about children, for children, and took their concerns seriously. The central concern of the Power children was whether or not they should inform their parents about their secret identities, and the way their opinions shifted as they considered the consequences of such an act still ring true to the sensitive and intelligent potential of kids. I think kids develop and keep secrets because they see them as a central part of adult life, where many an obvious thing goes unremarked upon or willfully denied.  The translation of such a perspective into the superhero world, what with its masks, secret plans, misunderstandings and moral dilemmas, makes perfect sense to me. It is also clear that despite living in 1980s New York City race was one those things that went uncommented on. This is most obvious when Simonson brings the crack epidemic in as the backdrop for a plot about some homeless criminal super-powered teens in Power Pack #31 and 32 (1987) and the Power’s kids lack of sympathy for them. I plan to write with in more depth about the series in the near future, but re-reading it in my 40s I was struck with how superhero comics are failing kids by not providing them the kind of complex representations of moral quandaries that are analogous to their own lives. It is for this reason, I think, that the current Ms. Marvel series is so successful. It gets teenage life right.1985's Fantastic Four #281, by John Byrne, Jerry Ordway et alFantastic Four #281 (August 1985) is another example of a comic that got me thinking, perhaps unintentionally about representation in comics. In becoming the malevolent Malice through the influence of the power of Hate-Monger, it became clear what only some readers had up-to-then considered a possibility; Sue Richards, the Invisible Girl (she’d be a “woman” soon) was the most powerful member of the Fantastic Four. Despite some deeply problematic assumptions inherent in how Reed adopts a misogynist attitude to defeat his wife in her new guise, John Byrne worked to slowly build Sue’s character towards her adoption of a new more appropriate name: the Invisible Woman. While more than likely Byrne was only trying to address the underwhelming way that Sue had been written since back in the Kirby days rather than actually make some kind of overtly feminist statement, having read those Marvel’s Greatest Comics made me realize not only how overdue such a handling of the character actually was, but how similar problems plagued even the most capable of female characters in superhero comics.Again, noting absences, reading against the grain, led to a fuller understanding of was going on in comics. Such a degree discernment is a frequent part of engaged comics reading, but the lens too often is focused on the convolution of continuity, not the quality of representation.I took a long break from collecting comics, basically from 1988 to around 2002 or so.  In the late 90s I started reading some again. I borrowed them from friends and housemates, but it wasn’t until I had my first “real” job that afforded me some disposable income and a lunch hour long enough to take the walk up to Forbidden Planet near Union Square that I slowly got sucked into comics again. However, it wasn’t until I re-read Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude for a grad school seminar in 2007 that I started to take comics seriously as an object of study. It is for this reason, that despite not being a comic in and of itself, I am including the book in this “autobiographical” list.Lethem’s re-use of the traditions of (mostly) Marvel Comics to evoke the strange absurdities of race, geography and identity, and his masterful entwining of comics and music and graffiti, speaks to my experience as a kid growing up in a complex social and economic Brooklyn landscape in the 1970s. I’d end up writing my Master’s thesis on the book, and including a chapter on it in my doctoral dissertation five years later. The novel allowed me to begin to put words to what had been my experience reading comics since childhood. It addressed that very silence in issues of race and gender by means of the protagonist’s understanding the world (in part) through his contact with superhero comics, as in when he struggles with the “colorblindness” his mother tries to instill in him in light of the racial quagmire of his gentrifying borough:“Black Bolt couldn’t open his mouth because a single syllable of his speech was so powerful it might crack the world apart.” From 1968's Fantastic Four #83, by Kirby, Lee, Sinnott et alAs I suggested above there is a dissonance between our idealized notions of diversity and racial harmony and the lived experience of the social turbulence and frequent violence of those contact zones. For many well-meaning people to acknowledge that turbulence is to condone it, or even to create it. To speak of it is to shatter the “harmony” only made possible through eliding the presence of the marginalized.Despite my focus on comics reading practices, the ways readers provide (or should provide) a form of closure through their engagement with the medium in a way that I think moves beyond mere visual closure of the type Scott McCloud explains in his seminal work Understanding Comics, my own reading of and writing about comics is not only about resistantengagement that re-circuits and re-imagines those imaginary worlds. Using the excuse of an independent study while working on my doctorate I got my hands on the complete run of the first volume of Los Bros Hernandez’s Love and Rockets and fell in love.Art and story by Gilbert HernandezFor those who may not know, Love and Rockets is a comic book series by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez that began in the early 1980s, ran into the mid-1990s, and then restarted in the 00s. While not a superhero comic, the influence of superhero comics (along with things like Archie, romance comics, and luchador and monster movies) is imprinted on the two distinct storylines and sets of characters, representing a broad range of diverse Latinidad. I actually find it disappointing that these days the Love and Rockets collections separate out Jaime’s Locasstories from Gilbert’s Palomar, because in how they were originally printed the two communities and their distinct concerns and contexts complemented each other, depicting a broader world. Furthermore, Love and Rocketsis written with a real punk rock spirit - not a simple recapitulation of trendy codes of rebelliousness, but a challenge to the establishment about music, about race, about sexuality, about fashion and about justice, and the degree to which the establishment is willing to pursue a scorched earth policy to enforce its normsGilbert Hernandez’s story arc Love and Rockets X is a great example of the comic’s heights. The elder Hernandez moves his focus from Latin America to southern California to create a transnational context for his characters and concerns. Moving the characters of Riri and Marciela from their full and rich depictions in Palomar as young women to where they are undocumented flower girls and cleaning ladies avoids the narrowing of their identities to the caricature of the “illegal alien,” while simultaneously exploring the complexity of overlapping communities in transnational space, all under the shadow of the coming upheaval of the L.A. uprising in light of the Rodney King verdict, even if that shadow only exists in the readers’ minds, and was not yet a context for Gilbert’s writing. The comic does a brilliant job of portraying the feeling that whatever peace there might be in American communities is a fragile one, supported by the complicity of those who do not think of themselves as oppressors. Anyone paying attention at that time should have seen uprising (however, futile) coming, even as we should see it coming nowBoth Jaime and Gilbert’s story occasionally take up the issue of comics in their work (something I’ve been writing about in some of my scholarly work), like Gilbert’s characters discussing the recapitulation of racist imagery in popular comic characters in Poison River, or Jaime’s Maggie’s obsession with female superheroes and her own comic book collection (check out God & Science: Return of the Ti-Girls).Art and story by Jaime HernandezAnyway, my point here (if I have one outside of just giving readers a sense of the trajectory of my tastes and concerns) is that I have to varying degrees worked on developing a way to read comics to hone not only a level of discernment, but to move readers to use that discernment to consider absence as a force that shapes the world these comics think they are reflecting. One of my grad school professors once suggested to me that literature was not a way of writing, but rather a way of reading, and I took that to heart to the degree that I see my literary scholarship as really a subset of a cultural studies approach. There is no such thing as a “neutral” or “apolitical” way of reading anything, let alone comic books. All readers already have an implicit “reading practice” based on cultural assumptions, and I see my own reading as a way to point out to those who deign to read what I have to say how to move towards a self-examination of their forms of examination, their assumptions and conclusions. Again, my sincerest thanks to Osvaldo for contributing so generously to TooBusyThinking.

On 'Judge Dredd, Enceladus: Old Life', and 'Meanwhile' : Several More Splendid Comics Read In August 2015 (Part 3)
Continuing TooBusyThinking's celebration of the severeal recently-read comics, which began here and continued here:1.The end of the world has descended on Judge Dredd's home of Mega-City One so frequently that it's hard to feel too invested in yet another Armageddon. But Rob Williams and Henry Flint's Enceladus: Old Life, which is currently running as 2000AD's lead feature, has succeeded in making 2137AD's latest apocalypse convincingly epic, unsettling and gripping. It's a strip I'd love to elbow out the time to discuss at greater length here at TooBusyThinking, but for the moment, I thought I might nominate the above page - from 2000AD #1943 - as my favourite from any I've seen this year. Any well-written conversation between Joe Dredd and Dirty Frank is inevitably going to represent a clash of pretty much irreconcilable world-views, given that both are tragically locked into their own unrelenting forms of psychological disorder. (The two may agree that their City needs to be saved, but their understanding of why and even perhaps how is always likely to fundamentally diverge.) To have Henry Flint represent Dredd's patrician-fascist perspective is compelling enough. But to have D'Israeli generously parachuted in mid-chapter to portray Frank's grasp of the desperate situation is an early-Christmas of a surprise. In contrast to Flint's dynamically disconcerting art, all wind sheer, snow and forbiddingly monumental architecture, D'Israeli's beatifully baffled Frank seems all the more adorable and suspectible. Accordingly, Enceladus: Old Life's impending cataclysm really does matter, because this immensely odd and fascinating couple have been placed with such precision by Williams right in the path of the oncoming uber-calamity. 2.Those who fondly recall the short-lived wave of ambitious British comics magazines of the late 80s and early 90s - Deadline, Revolver, Crisis, and so on - should immediately latch onto to Soaring Penguin Press's Meanwhile... . Like its predecessors from a quarter of a century ago and more, Meanwhile... is driven by the conviction that there's a smart and discerning adult audience that's keen to support a broad and engaging range of styles and genres. It's a strategy that almost inevitably produces longueurs along with enchantments, although which strip falls into which category will of course depend upon the reader's own taste. For me, the best of Meanwhile's strips so far are Krent Able's corporate-scorning satire Inc, a surreally stomach-turning sneer at 21st century rapacity, and Gary Spencer Millidge's Strangehaven: Destiny, a measured, good-humoured melange of smalltown mundanity and Fortean incursions. Each alone is worth the price of entry and more. (More on Meanwhile, which is now on its third issue, can be found at Soaring Penguin Press's homepage here.)To be continued

From 'Batman' to 'From The City To The Sea': Several More Splendid Comics Read In August 2015 (Part 2)
Continuing yesterday's tip of the hat to the best of the comics that came my way in August;1.Praise continues to shower down on writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo's tenure on Batman, and it would be churlish to deny that the storytelling in issue 43's Superheavy is anything other than considered, efficient and, on occasion, macabrely inspired. Quite contrary to the idle habits of 21st century decompression, the pages here are often densely packed with text and peppered with imaginatively spectacular and meticulously staged set-pieces. (The O'Neil/Adams homage that's the showdown before a fish-tank full of sharks is particularly tense and ingenious.) What's more, new super-villain Mr Bloom is as fearsome and disturbing an antagonist as any I've seen introduced into the Dark Knight's rogues gallery in my lifetime, which in itself is no little achievement. In a marketplace saturated with underachieving superhero titles, Synder and Capullo's Batman makes for an untypically engrossing and ambitious read. The collaboration between Greg Capullo, inker Danny Miki and colourist FCO Placencia is at its most eye-catchingly effective in this wordless double-page spread. The determination of all concerned to avoid the cliches of modern-day superhero storytelling is surely obvious. Like the best widescreen popcorn movies, these pages take a familiar brand of conflict and imaginatively recast it as an event. Especially impressive is the sense of weight and speed that's lent to the shark-laddened water that explodes out of the shattered aquarium tank. We might quibble that the two set-up panels immediately before that money-shot feel cramped and unsatisfying, but the sequence that follows succeeds in combining both horror and good-humour. The way that Jim Gordon, for example, clings to the back of a criminal-chomping shark in panel 7 is hilariously distasteful, and yet, it also exists for a very good reason: Batman needs a platform upon which to lean while he's gunning down his opponents. It's a joyful degree of ambition that's here to be seen, an admirable determination to make the most of the promising material at hand. But to this very-occasional reader, what's most fascinating is Synder's reinvention of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. By this I don't mean the repositioning of Commissioner James Gordon as a scientifically-augmented Bat-surrogate, although that's a trick that's ably played. Rather, it's Synder'sdecision to strip Bruce Wayne of both his childhood trauma and his experiences as Batman that fascinates. Not, I hasten to add, because I've the slightest interest in whether the character's status quo is ever going to be restored; Super-Hero Reboot Exhaustion Syndrome has long since set in, I fear. But rather because Synder reveals that Wayne had, prior to his peculiar bout of born againism, clearly degenerated into an excessively disturbed and morally bankrupt Frankenstein. Concerned that future generations would lack a Batman of their own, Wayne had been working on a machine that would spit out a never-ending sequence of fully grown and fundamentally disturbed Bat-clones. Somewhere in my memory is the suggestion that this was a beat first introduced in one form or another by Grant Morrison, but kudos for Synder and his decision to place the appalling conceit at the centre of Batman's continuity. For whether we're meant to see Wayne as a victim, a villain or even a demon-possessed avenger, the sheer chutzpah of Synder's storytelling really does deserve a round of applause. To state so explicitly that DC's number one superhero has long been either criminally insane or perhaps even profoundly bedevilled surely runs against all the rules of don't-rock-the-boat corporate comics. Batman's a what? Batman did what? And for how long? Anyone banking on selling merchandising to middle America based on that version of the Bat must rate their salesmanship very highly. As Sir Humphrey was want to declare when faced with a politically dangerous proposal, it's very brave....2.There's no escaping stories, or even escaping the compulsion to discover what stories there are to be found, as Tim Bird plays out in his wistful, questioning, and sweetly inspiring From The City To The Sea. A gentle, smart meditation on the way in which geography, culture and character combine to create meaning, Bird's five chapter tale depicts an everyman's odyssey from the crowds and clamour and claustrophobia of London's deep history to the tideline at which Britain disappears away under the ever-shifting North Sea. As a playful example of comics reportage, Bird's journey from heaving Underground carriages through suburbs and 'edgelands' to almost-deserted beaches is sharp-eyed and lyrical. As the artist's evocatively naive style establishes both the details of the mundane world and the persistence it takes to transverse it, we're encouraged to consider again the underpasseses, woodlands and housing estates of our own experience. As such, the journey Bird portrays along the sinews that join one only-apparently workaday reality with another suggests not just the singular qualities of taken-for-granted places and times, but also the way in which the traveller's past will inevitably shape their perceptions. The estates of Purfleet, for example, may be peppered with the hard facts of unnoticed satellite discs and disregarded rubbish bins, but they're also coloured by Bird's memories of the fine print of Bram Stoker's Dracula.Bird's style embraces naivety, but it's anything but ill-considered. From The City To The Sea is in many a surreptitiously virtuosic book, in that Bird uses a broad range of layouts and panel designs to carefully evoke specific spaces while cleverly manipulating the audience's sense of time. Although I'm fond of the way he uses the rarely-seen likes of 12-panel pages to suggest the slow passing of the minutes, my favourite pages involve just four frames, each taking up half-a-side of two facing pages. In each, Bird - or should that be Bird's narrator? - is placed centre-frame, suggesting a figure that's slogging through a long, long walk. The ever-more-bowed posture as the sequence continues accentuates the impression, and results in the impression that the character is having to press onwards merely to stand still. Just as it's impossible not to believe that distances are indeed being covered, the journey comes across as anything but a skipping pleasure.  Each frame, untypically large for the book, also suggests a monumental sense of scale, as if each landscape Bird's passing through is distinct and massive in its own right.  At least the last paragraph, with its suggestion of light and even dawn along with the untrammelled presence of nature offers the promise that the expedition is drawing to a close. Having delivered a wonderfully succinct false climax, in which reality seems neatly reduced to the pensive peace of seafront and waves, Bird presents us with an oceanside world that's anything but bled of inspiration. Over a ridge and there's chips to be bought, birds to be fed and interrogated, the Maunsell Forts on the horizon to be recognised and recalled, and so on, and on. Even at the ocean's edge, where nothing at first appears to connect with anything else, our narrator's thoughts are shown to be quietly recasting reality. As such, the very waves of the sea beat as askew metronomes to underpin the poetry of the shipping forecast. From The City To The Sea is a beguiling reflection on not just the poetry of the prosaic, but on the impossibility of reducing the world to a mute, flat backdrop. As Bird's surrogate on the page ends up asking of a demanding seagull, tell me about this place. Of course, the seagull doesn't answer, but that's not the seagull's job. It's ours, or so Bird suggests. Aren't we always asking questions of seagulls, as it were, and even when we fail to notice that we're doing so? As an encouragement to do exactly that, in addition to being a splendid comic in its own right, I can't recommend From The City To The Sea enough. Tim Bird's homepage can, and should, be found here, while 'From The City To The Sea' can be purchased from Avery Hill Publishing here.

From 'E Is For Extinction' to 'Abe Sapien', 'Captain Britain & The Secret Defenders' to 'Ashen': Several Splendid Comics From August 2015 (Part 1 of 3)
What follows is a celebration in capsule review form of the best comics to come this way during the past month. I've listed the titles in alphabetical order, which should help avoid any unintended suggestion of preference.A return to more cheerful if still characteristically ghoulish times, Abe Sapien #23 features the second and concluding part of a monster-hunting flashback to the days before Hellboy's demise. A wryly shadowladdened tale of small rural towns, know-nothing neighbours and supposedly legendary lake monsters, it sees a typically dogged and bemused Abe Sapien and Hellboy on the trail of murderers both human and monstrous. Working from a story he'd developed with series creator Mike Mignola, Scott Allie's droll, laconic script establishes him again as that rarest of modern day comics editors, worthy of respect as a storyteller in his own right. Justly or not, most writers paired with artist Kevin Nowlan emerge from the process with their reputation enhanced, but Scott Allie's work fits laudably into the best traditions of the Mignolaverse. All too little seen in the interiors of comics these days, Nowlan's storytelling remains an absolute joy, beautifully staged, persistently clear, moody, characterful and ingenious. Taking responsibility for the lettering and colouring too, Nowlan's art beguilingly portrays a universe that's laced with occult horrors and dotted by all-too-human dolts and reprobates. In Abe Sapien #23, it's not the Lovecraftian creatures that terrify, but the insular and self-interested everymen pontificating in bars, harbours and corner shops. As this Twenty-First century seems designed to prove, that sounds about right.Recommended to me by several generous readers of TooBusyThinking over the years, Ricardo Delgrado's Age Of Reptiles is, just as I've been promised, a remarkable series. But it's also one of the most profoundly unsettling comics I've ever experienced. In what's surely a Creationist's nightmare, Delgrado portrays a prehistoric past awash with the most richly bizarre and forensically accurate of fauna and flora. (The double-page spreads which here-in depict a seawall collapsing and the resulting, devastating tsunami in particular deserve to be even more widely known and acclaimed.) Yet in the end, Age Of Reptiles is page after chilling page of the war of all against all, existence stripped to its brutal core, savage and wonderful all at the same time. For anyone perturbed by the proposition that existence might just be entirely meaningless, Age Of Reptiles can be a profoundly unsettling read.I read about Case Van Weerdhuizen's dark fantasy Ashen at Robin William Scott's blog, The Mini Comic Courier. I can be a shameful old cynic, but Robin's a smart critic, and I've never known him to rave about a comic without good reason. And as he insists, Ashen truly is an outstanding achievement; innovative, ambitious and poignant. Why not read Robin's review for yourself - find it here - before perhaps following the link at The Mini Comic Courier to Weerdhuizen's homepage, where you opt to read Ashen for yourself.It's worth pushing past the undeniable pleasure of reading David Cameron's words coming out of the mouth of Ewing's lead super-villain in Captain Britain And The Secret Defenders #2, for there's much more to savour here than you'll find referenced in the net-chat headlines. In the last analysis, Ewing and Alan Davis' tale is a determined expression of faith in the face of the seemingly inexorable rise of Britain's wretched, rapacious Right. That the tale's a great deal of fun helps puncture all threat of worthiness, founded as CBATSA#2 is on a joyful appropriation of some of 2000AD's most beloved characters and concepts. With a skill at expressing charm and decency unmatched since Curt Swan's long heyday, Davis' dynamic work with Mike Farmer reads as a masterclass in action/adventure storytelling. But the closing quote from Billy Bragg's always-hopeful, oft-heartbreaking song Between The Wars makes sure that no-one who cares to pay attention can miss Ewing's meaning. Yes, this is a tale that expresses contempt for the ideology of Britain's current lords and masters. But far more importantly, Captain Britain And The Secret Defenders expresses a refusal to capitulate to either cynicism or defeatism. An expression of hope in times when hope is hard to find and harder yet to generate, it's a welcome blast of joyful, unyielding humanism. Not everyone comes to a love of Doctor Who through the intermittent - if frequently considerable - joys of the TV series. For me, it's been far more the decades of often exceptional licensed comics that have inspired my regard for the Time Lord and his universe. (I can recall enjoying, as a very young nipper in the mid-60s, the Doctor-less Daleks strip on the back page of TV21, a peerless weekly comic that intoxicatingly combined the joys of Gerry Anderson puppet shows, primetime American TV exports and Skaro's most nefarious.) Most months now seem to bring a fine Doctor tale or two from one publisher or another, and this month saw two particular pleasures emerge from Titan Comics. In the first, Al Ewing, Rob Williams and Simon Fraser brought their 15 issue Eleventh Doctor epic to a close, complete with the sweetly emotional beats that have been the hallmark of the series; grief threatens, as it always seems to, but friendship, as we'd hope, finally endures.As for the splendid Four Doctors limited series, by Paul Cornell and Neil Edwards, I've already expressed my regard in a blog post from earlier this week.Were there really stray cries of sacrilege and unworthiness to be heard when Chris Burnham, Dennis Culver, Ramon Villalobos and Iain Herring's E Is For Extinction debuted last June? In the outrage-foundry that's the comics blogosphere, no smart and engaging comic goes unpunished. If we can bring ourselves to forgive the comic's helmsmen for the crime of not being Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, and surely only an idiot wouldn't, then what's there on the page stands as a riot of humane intent and inventive storytelling. For those who adore Morrison and Quitely's New X-Men, this is a fond tribute to both its substance and show. (If it doesn't claim to push any envelopes itself, it most certainly celebrates those creator's characteristically ambitious approach.) For folks such as myself, who struggled with the New X-Men's askew mix of meta, wish-fulfilment and pell-mell storytelling, E Is For Extinction is a pleasingly affectionate reframing of the source material. Yes, E Is For Extinction sweetly satirises even as it lovingly homages Morrison's mutant-book project. But then, there's much from 2001-2004's New X-Men to satirise. All determined and daring jousts at the status quo end up leaving behind their own cliches. How could they not? Morrison's turn of the century revolt against the mutant book's then-ossified style was as serious-minded as it was extravagantly irreverent. By the end of his run, his success could in part be measured by the fact that his X-Men seemed every bit as peculiarly singular as Chris Claremont's ever had. And so it goes.  Stripped of the New X-Men's defining mix of turn-of-the-century exuberance and ever-so-worthy intent, E Is For Extinction replays comics history as astute, affectionate farce far more than tragedy. As aged mutant heroes drag their weary bodies into battle for one more Dark Phoenix epic, Burnham and Culver playfully cycle through any number of Morison's themes and plot-twists. With Villalobos' wonderfully zestful art matched to Herring's effervescent pop-art colours, the title charms and fascinates from beginning to end. Quite frankly, E Is For Extinction is, as I so rarely get to write, an absolute be continued

On Doctor Who: Four Doctors #1, by Paul Cornell, Neil Edwards, Ivan Nunes et al (Some Fantastic Place #10)
Cover by Neil Edwards1.One of the features I used to run with in the early days of this blog had the title of Some Fantastic Place. Knowing that TooBusyThinking could suffer from a surfeit of over-righteous chin-stroking, I'd use the SFP posts as a counter-weight. We Aspies have a habit of being over-analytical, and it's a constant struggle to keep a sense of perspective while maintaining an air of sincerely meant good humour. At times, crass if earnestly-meant tub-thumping threatens. Mea culpa. As such, the SFP pieces were my attempt to both remind myself and reassure any stray visitor that, yes, I really do know that comics can be an awful lot of fun.2.Each of the Some Fantastic Place posts started with a statement of intent not unlike this one;"It's shamefully easy to obscure a comic's strengths under a weight of analysis and opinion. So this time, let's not get bogged down in worthy appraisals. Instead, let's take a more relaxed, emotional and even scandalously personal path to evaluation. Let's do away with all pretence at intellectual rigour, critical theorising, fanboy indignation and continuity copness. Let's just start looking for good things, on whatever scale they might arrive. Why not also celebrate imaginative single panels, witty snatches of dialogue, unexpectedly appropriate sound effects, and so on. Why not focus on the things that we would have noticed and treasured when we had far fewer comics to enjoy and far more time on our hands?" Indeed, no matter how fearsomely inept a story might seem, there's nearly always something that might be said in its favour. Assuming that such shining moments really do exist has frequently helped to undermine my own preferences, or, to be more honest, my prejudices. To my constant surprise, I've found just about every comic will yield something of value if it's approached in a trusting manner. It's a way of seeing that I ought never to have abandoned.When we were nippers, we rarely if ever reached for a comic with the slightest degree of cynicism. We simply assumed that it would be enjoyable, and so it was likely to be. CVariant cover by Kelly Yates3.As I tend to, I'd sketched out a brief list of pros and cons after reading last week's debut issue of Doctor Who: Four Doctors by writer Paul Cornell, artist Neil Edwards, colourist Ivan Nunes et al. Two things immediately struck me. The first was that the list of the things I'd enjoyed was a substantial one. The second was how much longer it would take, by comparison, to express my relatively few concerns. It's far harder to carp than it is to cheer, and since there's few enough works of art that can't be legitimately criticised, carping often feels unavoidable. After all, isn't it dishonest, and to the point of sycophancy, to acclaim a tale without signing up its problems?To spell out a concern or two typically takes more space, more thought, and more care than it does to note a far larger number of accolades. For a critique can all too easily become a slander, a sweeping statement of unsupported opinion that's unlikely to sidestep seeming arbitrary and insulting. (After all, by some strange rule of the human psyche, a barb always seems to carry far more weight than a bravo.) As such, a comprehensive review of Four Doctors would always risk compromising the fact that it's a remarkably smart and enjoyable read. In truth, it's one of the most entertaining comics I've come across in months if not years. But how to express that, without either muddying the truth or appearing uncritically fawning?As such, and given the freedom of this blog, I thought I might summon the Some Fantastic Place format from the grave, and use it to discuss just a few heartening aspects of Four Doctors. That is, in truth, how we tend to discuss the things we've enjoyed with friends anyway, in a wayward sequence of examples and impressions.  As in a friendly conversation across the dinner table, the points that follow aren't intended to be exhaustive or definitive. Nor are they listed in order of preference or supposed importance. They're just the first three or four positive qualities out of many that came to mind.(Please do be aware, spoilers lurk from this point onwards.) 4.As we might expect from a character who's belatedly come to see herself as a control freak of sorts, it's appropriate that Clara Oswald drives much of Four Doctors #1's main plot. Deliciously in character, Cornell has her display her typical mix of principle, empathy, energy and bull-headedness. Similarly, Edwards' art nails Jenna Coleman's skill at projecting a successful teacher's domineering charisma. Convinced that a meeting in the Paris of 1922 between the 10th, 11th and 12th Doctors will lead to the 'end of all things', Clara tracks down the companions who might help forestall disaster. In itself, this apparent convergence between the continuity of TV's Who with that of Titan's comics brings with it a pleasurably fannish shiver. But referencing the what-ifs of continuity and crossovers will only carry a team of storytellers so far, and here it's the sparkily captivating dialogue that smartly turns the promise of a team-up into a dramatic pleasure. All three women are recognisably in character, with the speed at which Gabby and Alice accept Clara's word standing in hilarious contrast to their respective Doctor's coming inability to get along. Best yet, Cornell establishes each woman as a substantial and admirable figure even before the various incarnations of their Timelord friend even appear. 5. As discussed at TooBusyThinking before, few contemporary comics writers can match Cornell when it comes to the smartly profitable use of continuity. And so, Four Doctors is studded with references to Who lore, from Daleks to the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, from Clara struggling to hide her relationship with the 11th Doctor from him to her use of the Tardis' telepathic circuits. Best of all, none of this is intrusive, let alone gratuitous. Cornell obviously knows that events have to be perfectly understandable to those who know nothing of Voort or Timelord, and so he uses continuity in an appropriately layered fashion. For those familiar with the Doctor's fifth-ever TV serial from 1964, the changes that he and Edwards show in the planet Marinus and its inhabitants will be intriguingly shocking. For those such as myself, who've yet to watch The Keys Of Marinus, events are still made perfectly clear. It's a usage of continuity that rewards the knowledgeable reader without ever penalising the neophyte. Because of that, the references to this event and that concept in the script intrigue rather than intimidate. A beguiling story that offers the reader the option of digging deeper into an immersive world will always serve as an incentive to read, and watch and listen, further. Accordingly, and despite having a heretical lack of fascination for the First Doctor's adventures, the thought of watching The Keys Of Marinus now feels quite irresistible. If this is the after, then I'm just going to have to experience the before.The scene featuring the War Doctor on Marinus see the very best of artis tNeil  Edwards and colorist Ivan Nunes. Together they create the unsettling sense of a vast desert tombworld whose inhabitants lack the perspective to appropriately mourn what's been lost. Brilliant touches abound; the silent, monumental  space-ship that's an entire Dalek army's grave; the manner in which the Voord Group Mind abandons one human host and claims another; the suggestion of heat-haze created by the thin, contour-following lines of colours on the steel-coloured body of a Voort fighter; the bows of submission as one host replaces another. 6.Cornell's writing for comics has often seemed to be driven by the desire to deliver the richest possible experience in the pithiest possible form. And so, in the Four Doctor's remarkable opening five page scene, spectacle constantly and subtly supports exposition, while both combine to ensure that the anti-war subtext is clear if never distractingly obvious. It's an introduction that's so well written and illustrated that it's hard to credit how much incident and information it contains. An entire page of three panels given over to the bringing down of a Dalek craft? A whole side given over to the War Doctor and his alien allies? None of this implies dense and involving storytelling. Yet that's exactly what this sequence of 16 panels, at an average of just 3 frames a page, delivers. Rather than the slackness of 21st century decompression, this is rich and rewarding fare.Here the War Doctor - from 2013's TV special The Name Of The Doctor - is shown leading the resistance to a Dalek attack on the planet Marinus. On screen, the War Doctor was a lone, furious, boneweary and utterly alienated individual. In that, it took a leap of faith at first to see the similarities between him and the other versions of the same character. But Cornell adroitly shows how much the War Doctor has in common with his fellow incarnations. Just as the other Doctors would, he's seen bravely acting for the oppressed, building alliances, scheming strategies, inspiring faith, and walking the difficult line between independent player and citizen of Gallifrey. Only his ends seem different, as he ruthlessly connives to turn an army of Daleks to 'dust'. (If other Doctors have occasionally committed similarly ferocious acts, they never embraced, as here, the role of foot-soldier while doing so.) Set in an earlier stage of the Time War to that shown in the War Doctor's sole TV appearance, it's a melancholic vignette that's haunted by all the suffering and disillusionment that we know is still to come. Even as the War Doctor promises to represent his allies' apparent best interests to the Timelords' High Council, the reader can fell pretty sure that little of such good intent will prosper. Detail of the above page.As if that wasn't enough, Cornell and Edwards also use the scene to introduce the changes to the environment and inhabitants of Marinus that the open conflict between Timelords and Daleks has wrought. Just as the War Doctor has, the planet's lifeforms have embraced the transformations that traumatic conflict has made seem necessary. These aren't, Cornell suggests, changes to be regarded as either desirable or unavoidable. As this introduction to Four Doctors makes plain, the evolution towards more efficient warlike forms comes at the cost of what might be called, for the sake of brevity, an essential humanity. These freedom fighters of three separate races have adapted to fight bloody wars in acid deserts, but acid deserts is all it's won them. Eventually, as The Name Of The Doctor showed, much of Gallifrey itself will be wasteland. In that light, it's hard to believe that the survivors on Marinus will long survive, let alone, after their own fashion, prosper. Variant cover by Joshua Cassara & Luis Guerrerro7.Truthfully, Four Doctors #1 offers far too many delights to suit the Some Fantastic Place format. The temptation to rattle on is strong, but rules are rules. And so, I'll just have to leave unmentioned the creator's canny decision not to show the Daleks as they suffer the horrors of 'accelerated evolution'. (Another writer might have chosen to kick off the series with the spectacle of the suffering of the Doctor's greatest opponents. Yet the decision to avoid such a pleasantly prurient spectacle sets up the sepulchral eeriness of the War Doctor's visit to his foe's crashed ship, while leaving the joys of Dalek destruction in Cornell and Edwards' back pocket for later issues.) Similarly, I'll not discuss the constant and beguiling game-playing between script and reader, as the possibilities for time to be rewritten while continuity stays essentially the same are signed up. Even the charm of the Eleventh Doctor's hitherto-unsuspected part in reforming the moral content of French-Belgian popular literature will have to be left to one side, as will the unexpected return in the comic's cliffhanger of a long-since-seen concept from a Cornell TV Who tale. Instead, let me simply emphasise that I strongly suspect Four Doctors #1 would be well worth your time.  .

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