Before we get too far into 2007, I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon and offer my own take on the best...and worst...the world of comics (and comics-related media) had to offer in 2006.
With the optimism of New Year's Day still fresh in the air, let's begin with the GOOD STUFF of 2006:
1. Infinite Crisis: With a few notable exceptions (see item #1 under the "Bad" category), DC's gigantic sequel to the original Crisis on Infinite Earths was a near picture-perfect example of how to build and sustain excitement for a major event. Starting with a half-dozen "Countdown" mini-series that all lead into the Infinite Crisis "main event" (with varying degrees of success), DC gradually revealed more pieces to the puzzle, eventually blowing the lid off with the return of the long-lost "Earth-2 Superman", along with a myriad of alternate realities. In short, a dream come true for an old dog like me.
Yeah, it was too good to last, and things got much bloodier than I think they needed to be...and the finale' was badly bobbled. However, taken as a whole, I have to hand it to DC for making the first part of 2006 a genuinely exciting, suspenseful ride for old and new fans alike.
2. DC's Superman titles: Spinning out of Infinite Crisis was the self-explanatory "One Year Later" event, which brought new creative teams to both Superman and Action Comics. Writers Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns (later joined by lionized Superman director Richard Donner) immediately re-energized DC's flagship character, who'd been languishing with a tone-deaf editor and ill-suited creative teams for far too many years. From Busiek's restoration of Superman's "super intellect" to Johns/Donner's incorporation of the movie's "Kryptonian Crystal tech" (not to mention the great artwork), this potent mixture of the new and nostalgic has brought a real sense of fun and adventure back to the original superhero. Here's hoping some recent publishing delays won't screw it all up.
3. Superman Returns: DC's annual claim that it's "The Year of Superman" finally rang true in 2006, as their reinvigorated Superman comics were perfectly complemented by the Man of Steel's return to the silver screen. As a zealous super-fan, I'd followed the movie's long, excruciating process of "development hell" (best symbolized by the casting of Nicholas Cage as Superman), so you can imagine my joy when it became clear that a new Superman movie wouldn't be an embarrassing suck-job. Were there problems with Superman Returns? Of course there were...just as there were with the original Superman: The Movie. I've long since given up insisting that comic book movie adaptations be perfect (heck, even the comics seldom get it right), so I was willing to give most of director Bryan Singer's little indulgences a pass...mainly because he was able to do so much stuff right. The airplane rescue scene was one of the most thrilling movie-going experiences of my life (especially the IMAX version), and Brandon Routh really brought a warmth and dignity to the character I wasn't expecting. Yeah, the "Super-Kid" angle poses some problems for the already-announced sequel, but I'm confident they'll be able to overcome them....especially with Singer talking about incorporationg "more action". That's never a bad thing when it comes to Superman movies.
4. NBC's "Heroes": I had zero expectations for this series as I tentatively tuned into its pilot episode, so you can imagine my surprise at finding out just how good it turned out to be. Knowing how tricky the "gradually revealed mystery" can be, with the danger of telling either too much or too little, Heroes has masterfully achieved that balance. Better yet, they've managed to do it with a staggeringly large cast of characters, all compelling in their own ways (to varying degrees, of course). Many serialized "hot shows" tend to throw in the anchor and take their time once they realize they're a hit (like "Lost"), but I don't sense much of that with Heroes. Apparently, creator Tim Kring, while intrigued by superheroes, isn't a died-in-the-wool fanboy...which I think works in the series' favor. Instead of obsessing over nailing the "authentic" comic book beats, Kring brings a new twist to almost every anticipated cliche...keeping both fanboys and non-fanboys alike engaged in his sprawling conspiracy/save the world adventure.
5. Dynamite's "The Lone Ranger": When DC and Marvel largely abandoned licensed adaptations of TV and movie properties, smaller publishers like Dark Horse and newcomer Dynamite Entertainment took up the slack. While most of Dark Horse's efforts go into various Star Wars titles, Dynamite has chosen to adapt a wide variety of "niche" properties that have a smaller, but intensely loyal fan base. Some of these "cult favorites" include Battlestar Galactica (both new and classic), Xena, Highlander, Red Sonja and my personal favorite The Lone Ranger. Though I've never been much of a classic western fan (whether books, movies or TV shows), the superhero elements of characters like The Lone Ranger and Zorro make them obvious exceptions. Straying far from the bloodless, sanitized world of Clayton Moore's amiable Lone Ranger, Dynamite's version is a stark, often brutal view of the Old West as it traces John Reid's journey of retribution and, ultimately, justice. As with so many modern comic book titles, the storyline's leisurely pace definitely has a mass-market trade paperback collection as its goal...but in this case, the slower pace seems to work in its favor by lending the tale a grand sense of scale. With the broad outline of the Ranger's origin so widely known, it's interesting to take some detours along the way by providing new details that work to the same end. Many thanks to writer Brett Matthews, artist Sergio Cariello, and cover artist John Cassaday for using the very best aspects of modern storytelling to revive an old favorite.
It's with a heavy heart (well, not that heavy) that I move onto the BAD STUFF of 2006:
1. Infinite Crisis #7: There's nothing worse than a botched ending, especially when it comes at the tail end of a much-anticipated, uber-hyped epic like Infinite Crisis. The first four or five issues of the mini-series had an audacious "anything can happen" feel to them, setting up for a classic "home run" opportunity in the final two issues. Sadly, the final two issues....particularly the final issue, were instead a study of "flash over substance" as we saw DC Comics hedging bets, returning to status quos and generally chickening out before our eyes. The last minute "reprieve" for Dick "Nightwing" Grayson was clumsily handled, as was the scene of Superboy Prime beating the Earth-2 Superman to a bloody pulp (click the inset image for a larger view), which, combined with the obviously unfinished artwork peppering the issue, seriously marred the otherwise enjoyable Infinite Crisis experience. DC has since corrected many of these clumsy errors in their trade paperback collection of Infinite Crisis, which is to be commended, but it's too bad that same degree of professionalism couldn't have been applied to the original serialized version. Big points off for DC for this mess of a finale'.
2. Spider-Man's Boneheaded Unmasking: No stranger to blundered mega-events, Marvel's ill-advised Civil War has been a virtual parade of mischaracterization and comically macho posing, courtesy of writer and self-annointed media sensation Mark Millar. As the name implies, Civil War involves a political split within the Marvel universe, as one side (the fascist boot-lickers) supports the government's superhero registration act, while the other side (the noble patriots) resists (or retreats to Canada). As a sign of the uncharacteristic ass-hattery to come, Peter Parker shows his support of Iron Man's Facist Bootlickers by publically unmasking on international television. Other than getting Mark Millar's name on CNN, it's not clear what this spectacularly stupid stunt was supposed to accomplish.
3. Captain America...Class-Hating Thug! "Civil War: The story so wrong, it rates two mentions for the worst of 2006." As the leader of the Noble Anti-Goverment forces, Captain America becomes a tool for Millar's paranoid Leftist fantasies, like this uncharacteristic (and almost laughable) bit of class-envy taken from Civil War #4 (click on image for a larger view). Nevermind the fact that Tony Stark has fought the good fight for years as Iron Man, he's just a "pampered punk" to Captain America because....well....he's rich! Of course he's on the side of evil...at least to a political caricature artist like Millar. Sadly, this ugly behavior isn't the exception in Civil War....it's the rule, as long-beloved characters act like the dour, mercenary thugs populating Millar's The Ultimates, a team of PG-13 faux-Avengers.
4. "We will print no comic before its time..." Much like Orson Welles' pompous "We will make no wine before its time" line from those old Paul Masson TV commercials, spokemen for DC and Marvel comics have parroted a similar line when responding to the growing criticsm over habitually late comic books. Rather than apologizing to fans for such unprofessional behavior and working hard to fix the problem (by assigning writers and artists who can actually meet a monthly deadline), they've instead taken the "high society" approach by rationalizing that "good comics take time", with the implication that anyone who disagrees supports low-quality hackery. As much as modern commentators mock the comics of years ago, at least the creators of that era had the professionalism and commitment to readers to get the books out on time. Sure, there was the occasional lame 'reprint issue" or sub-par performance, but on the whole, they rewarded fan loyalty with a consistent product. Today, we must wait for the latest "rock star" artists, Hollywood darlings or hotshot novelists to "bless us" with an issue or two a year, then thanking them for the privilege of receiving these meager scraps...because "we will buy no comics before their time".
5. Missing in Action...DC's All-Star Line: As aggrivating as the growing number of late titles has gotten, DC's derelict All-Star line deserves some extra scorn. After a much-ballyhooed launch way back in 2004, this line of "top creators working on top characters" has become an inert laughing stock, as preoccupied writers and artists turn in their stories...well, pretty much whenever they feel like it. After several rounds of canceling and resolicitng new issues, retailers, fans and even DC Comics seem to have forgotten about this once-promising line of comics. One of the titles, All-Star Superman is sorely missed, since it was one of the best takes on the character in recent memory, while the execreble All-Star Batman might be better off left behind. Still "scheduled" is an All-Star Wonder Woman title, but with Adam Hughes at the helm (a guy long gone from the rigor of monthly deadlines), I don't see much dedemption there. It's a pity, really, since the premise of the line was a real winner. Too bad DC Comics and their pampered superstars didn't have the willpower or professionalism to pull it off.
Chris Sims, proprietor of the hilarious Invincible Super-Blog, has thrown down the 30 Second Recap challenge, in which a noted comic book story is summarized using only a few panels and super-fast drawing. Since I'm a professional cartoonist, I tried to go as fast as I could without putzing over the details...while still trying to make it look like a sucky drawing. My entry for the 30 Second Recap goes back a ways to the classic early-70's shocker The Death of Gwen Stacy, one of the most dramatic comic book stories I've ever read (or ever expect to read). Click on the thumbnail image of the recap for a full-size view.
I'll have to admit, there's something charming about knocking a story down to its barest essentials....even a dark storyline like this one. Enjoy!
P.S.: Hey Chris...do I get extra credit for that kick to the face in panel seven?
For most of the 1940's and early 50's (commonly dubbed comics' "Golden Age"), Superman and Captain Marvel were two of the most wildly popular superheroes of the era. In fact, Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel even surpassed Superman's sales at one point, which DC Comics countered with a copyright infringement suit, even though Cap was never actually that similar to Superman. Nevertheless, Fawcett lost the lawsuit and ceased publication of Captain Marvel in 1953.
In a crazy twist of irony, DC Comics acquired the rights to publish Captain Marvel in 1972, and quickly followed up with a new SHAZAM! series. Instead of integrating Cap into the modern style of comic book storytelling, DC decided to stick with the lighthearted, whimsical approach of the Golden Age stories. In fact, they even hired Cap's original illustrator C. C. Beck to draw the stories.
Despite Superman's strangely-silent presense on the cover of SHAZAM #1(click on the cover image for a larger view), the two (former) Golden Age rivals had never actually met each other in a comic book story. Their first true meeting would get a little bit closer with Superman #276 (1974), featuring the titanic clash of Superman and Captain Marvel stand-in Captain Thunder!
According to writer Elliot S. Maggin in a 2006 interview, the reason behind using Captain Thunder (despite having the rights to the real deal) was that DC felt the more whimsical Captain Marvel appearing in SHAZAM would be a poor thematic fit with the more "realistic" Superman, and that Cap's appearance in Superman (or vice versa) would be too jarring a transition for either character to make. Whatever the case, we all knew this was Captain Marvel (more or less), and if anyone still had any misgivings about the substitution, this incredible "MUST BUY!" cover by the prolific Nick Cardy was more than enough to overcome them.
I've always been a sucker for "clash covers". You know, the covers where superheroes (or groups of superheroes...or villains) are hurtling toward each other at top speed, frozen in time at that split second before impact. Despite all the "growing" and "maturing" superhero comics have experienced over the past few decades, it's still hard to deny the power and appeal of a good clash cover. Pumping up the tension is, of course, the terrified fleeing crowds below the clashing superheroes, who are seemingly oblivious to the death and destruction the collision of their invulnerable bodies will generate.
In other words, the ideal comic book cover for your inner 10 year-old.
By the way, to see more of Nick Cardy's outstanding DC covers, click here for an extensive (and nicely organzied) cover gallery!
Here in the first week of January, the familiar sight of Baby New Year not only symbolizes the dawning of 2007, but also brings to mind the baby superheroes of years past. More specifically, the adventures of adult superheroes when they were children, or, in some cases, de-aged from adults into teenagers…or even toddlers!
Like so many whimsical comic book transformations, kiddy superheroes were a more frequent sight in simpler times, when readers were still primarily children and not mortgage-paying cynics. As such, kids were genuinely amused to see child versions of powerful, grown-up superheroes, much as they would be by photos of their own parents as children. It was somehow reassuring to find out that these mighty grown-ups were at one time children themselves, or, if they were de-aged, could be reminded of what it’s really like to be a kid.
The very first kid-version of an adult superhero was, of course, Superboy, who made his debut cover appearance on More Fun Comics #104 (1945).
In Marvel's phenomenally successful (and constantly tardy) Civil War mega-event, Iron Man is the defacto leader of the sinister forces supporting a government registration of superhumans (seen here palling around with the evil Baron Zemo). Despite Marvel's initial claims of a balanced presentation of the two sides, Iron Man is clearly being set up for a switch to the Dark Side as Civil War lurches into its final act.
However, is Iron Man's villainous turn a wildly uncharacteristic demolition of an otherwise sterling hero...or actually the fruition of seeds of evil planted years ago by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby?
Well, I initially thought it was the first option, assuming that Iron Man was being thrown under the bus to play the part of "Scary Right-Wing Caricature" in writer Mark Millar's pseudo-political puppet show. Now, after coming across these shocking panels from Avengers #7 (1964), I realize that Tony Stark (in addition to being an icky millionaire) is a cigarette smoker!
Don't believe me? Check out the panels in question,
both completely original and unaltered:
Yup. There he is. Tony Stark......supporter of Big Tobacco, casual generator of second-hand smoke, and completely oblivious to the staggering irony of smoking while he "recharges his life-giving chest device"!
Now that I know this shocking secret from Marvel's Silver Age past, it's no wonder Tony Stark became the goose-stepping government stooge he is today!
Courtesy of the awesome Frederator site, someone spotted a pretty amazing cameo on an old episode of Naked City. No, it's not what you're thinking (perverts). Naked City was a popular police drama of the late 50's and early 60's (sort of the Hill Street Blues of its day).
Anyway, so the guy's watching the episode and something on a newsstand in the background jumps out at him. Check out the screen-grab:
(click on the image for a larger view):
That's not only a Spider-Man comic book displayed behind the actors, but the very first appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962), hanging there as casually as any other comic book on the stand.
Here's another shot of it nestled behind the reliably sweaty and overwrought Burgess Meredith:
But wait....there's more!. Take another look at the shot of the two actors, then look just to the right of Amazing Fantasy #15. Sharp-eyed fans of Silver Age Marvel Comics will recognize the cover to Journey Into Mystery #83, featuring the first appearance of The Mighty Thor!
I'm sure none of the cast and crew of Naked City would have ever guessed a 24¢ purchase of both titles would net them well over $100,000 in today's collector's market. Maybe that's why Burgess Meredith was sweating so profusely. He somehow knew he was in the presence of comic book history!
Of all the dramatic devices used to grab the attention of comic-book fans, few could surpass the shock of a superhero (or similarly upstanding character) behind bars. Normally dedicated to truth, justice and the American Way (I don't edit that last part out), superheroes portrayed as prisoners were an especially alarming, incongruous spectacle.
Case in point, the cover of Captain America #260 (1981), which featured an understandably bummed-out Cap "behind bars."