What I thought of Heroes in Crisis

Written by Tom King and drawn by Clay Mann, Heroes in Crisis was yet another massive event title which promised to ‘change the DC Universe forever’, or at least til the end of June. It is an interesting, but seriously, seriously flawed experiment  but more on that in a moment.

The story centres round Sanctuary, a centre created by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman designed to help superheroes deal with the physiological effects of being a superhero. Basically it’s a drop in centre for people suffering with PTSD. This in itself is a great idea as it deals with the violence intrinsic in superhero comics and forces the reader to confront the fact their favourite genre is a violent one soaked in wish fulfilment.   This would be a great chance to do something unique and original as Tom King is certainly a talented enough writer to pull it off.

Except it doesn’t. It fails badly because it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Is it a murder mystery or a psychological study of the superhero because merging both doesn’t work as all of the threads become a mess as King also throws in some threads from his Batman run not to mention enacting obvious editorial demands which ends up making the ending pretty worthless.

But is an experiment. It does try to say something different. Mann’s art is pretty good often following a 9-panel grid but again it all feels a bit empty which is a shame as DC need something to give them a hard kick in the arse and this could have been it.

Inside John Byrne’s studio

For those of us of a certain age the name John Byrne is associated with the X Men.

As well as his Superman reboot.

Over the last decade or so Byrne’s been doing bits and bobs away from Marvel or DC, though there is a rumour he’s working on an X Men book again. Byrne has a pretty Marmite reputation with fans but this is someone who helped change modern superhero comics, and really probably deserves more credit than he gets.

The video below is a fascinating tour round his studio and his collection of original art. It should make you supremely jealous. Enjoy.

What I thought of Action Comics #1000

80 years ago Action Comics #1 was published and the world of comics, indeed, the world at large, changed as Superman quickly became a massive success. The fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s creation is still with us speaks volumes about the strength of the character in how he relates to people.

1000 issues for an America comic is a landmark, though it does have to be said the only reason Action is hitting that landmark now ahead of Detective Comics (which started publishing first) is due to a period in the 1980’s when it was published weekly. On the whole DC Comics have managed to produce a fitting anniversary issue with the only real duffer being Brian Bendis’s first Superman story which is just a pretty standard fight scene with a cliffhanger ending which is to make you buy his new run.

The issue starts with a very 90’s feeling story by Dan Jurgens which isn’t substantial but reads nicely and reminds me how simple it is to write Superman if you don’t make him an arrogant prick.

Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Never-Ending Battle is a lovely look through Superman’s history that consists of splash pages, and Marv Wolfman and Curt Swan team up in an unpublished story which reads like something from the 80’sand is again, a nice read. It’s also nice to see Curt Swan’s pencils (Jackson Guice inks him) again.

One of the highlights here is Geoff Johns and Richard Donner’s (the one who directed the 1978 film) The Car, drawn by Oliver Coipel. It deals with the story of that car Superman is smashing up on the cover of #1 and is quite literally the spirit of Superman in just a few pages.

Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerue’s The Fifth Season is a Superman/:Lex Luthor story which doesn’t quite hit the heights it aims for but Tom King and Clay Mann’s Of Tomorrow is wonderful. It reads like a coda to Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman which is no passing praise.

Five Minutes by Louise Simonson and Jerry Ordway again reads like something from the 1990’s which isn’t to insult it. IN fact compared to DC’s current often awful storytelling in its comics, it’s a joy to read this as well as seeing the great Jerry Ordway doing what he’s best at.

The stand out gem and reason you should buy this is Actionland! by Paul Dini and the great Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. It is everything great about a period of Superman’s history done in a way that looks glorious.

Brad Meltzer and John Cassaday’s Faster Than A Speeding Bullet lives up to the title and this leads into the first Bendis Superman story which is the least substantial thing here.

Action Comics #1000 is a fitting tribute to the character and title that kicked off an entire industry that changed the lives of millions. For a title that’s often had less than stellar work in its pages over the decades (Superman quickly became the main focus for the character) this reminds us of the title’s anthology origins and how good Superman can be if done right. Here’s to seeing what happens over the next 1000 issues…

A quick word about the brilliance of José Luis García-López

Over the decades the world of comics have produced superstar artists from Jack Kirby to Jim Steranko to Neal Adams, John Byrne, George Perez, Brian Bolland, Jim Lee and dozens more. You rarely find the name of José Luis García-López in these lists yet artists rate him enormously & you’ll have almost certainly seen an example of his art. In fact I guarantee you’d have seen it.

García-López is essentially the artist that defined how DC Comics superheroes looked from the late 70’s to fairly recently, and having drawn countless character sheets for artist references not to mention the endless items of DC’s merchandising it is likely you’re sitting not far from a García-López piece right now.

His characters aren’t muscle-bound or cursed with infeasibly large breasts, but although hyper-realised, still look like human beings albeit somewhat fantastic in their costumes.

I especially recommend the series he drew for DC called Twilight. Written by Howard Chaykin, the series is a glorious science fiction epic that allows García-López  to indulge himself, and the covers are simply wonderful.

So go search out his work. In the last 40 years there’s few artists who’ve drawn superheroes as well as he has, and with DC stuck in their current bland ‘house style’, García-López stands as a reminder of how it could, and even should be done.

Superman Returns

Action Comics is due to hit its 1,000th issue in April. In it Superman finally ditches the armour he’s been wearing since The New 52 revamp and returns to his traditional outfit.

Superman after being away for so long is back, and Action #1000 also feature the wonderful José Luis García-López, an artist who I’ll be blogging about in more detail soon as one of the finest, but yet under-appreciated, artists of the last 40 years.

There’s a lot of people who hate Superman quoting anything from the character being boring or too good, or powerful, but yet this is the basis for the genre of super heroes and done right, Superman is a character than can show us the best of who we. He is also escapism and he can also be used to deal with issues of the day as he was 1,000 issues ago in Action Comics #1.

When Superman started it was dark times with an economic recession and the rise of the far right threatening us, and we’re in similar times so Superman can stand as a beacon of hope rather than the arsehole he was in The New 52, or the brooding killer of Zack Snyder’s imagination. Instead we’re hopefully back to having a heroic figure for people to aspire to which is what we need in a genre full of ‘edgy’ anti-heroes as sometimes you need to point to a moral standard to aspire to rather than just accept lazy cynicism passing for ‘cutting edge’.

We shall see but regardless, hitting 1,000 issues in an American comic (British comics use to pass that milestone regularly) is an achievement and if that includes the proper Superman returning then all the best for it.

What I thought of Doomsday Clock #1

There’s a song by Pulp called Bad Cover Version.

How it relates to Geoff Johns and Gary Franks’ Doomsday Clock #1 will become clear very, very soon but first a quick recap as to what Doomsday Clock is. It is the sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen. It looks like Watchmen, it has characters from Watchmen in it, and it looks like it in design but every page reminds me of how good Watchmen was and how much of an unpleasant aftertaste Doomsday Clock leaves.

Johns starts this as the world of Watchmen faces imminent nuclear destruction and as he throws out Moore-esque prose but something isn’t quite right. Moore told the story of Watchmen using the world as it may have been in 1985 and restricting himself to a world where costumed heroes were real and one superhero was the most powerful thing in the universe. In Doomsday Clock, Johns throws in 2017 references such as Brexit or the American president playing golf during a crisis (imagine if Moore had chucked in mentions of Thatcher and Reagan to make it really obvious) to spell it out for the reader because Johns doesn’t seem to trust the reader.

Hence the large chunks of Claremont-esque exposition such as above which means the story doesn’t unfold as a mystery (which is one of the many ways one can read Watchmen) but as conventional superheroics influenced by the post-Watchmen/Dark Knight ‘dark’ comics that poured out like a pissy golden stream from 1986 onwards.

This is the odd thing here. Johns has publicly said the entire idea of DC’s Rebirth relaunch is to flush the ‘dark’ comics introduced by Moore and Gibbons away for something more cheery, yet the problem with ‘dark’ superhero comics wasn’t Watchmen, it was from people like Johns trying to be Alan Moore and failing. It was the reams of imitators who read Watchmen and only took the grim stuff and violence (and compared to a book like Punisher or Wolverine it isn’t as violent) out of it and thought that’s what made it so good. It isn’t easy to forget or disconnect from Moore’s vision when this happens.

Rorschach was the most popular character from Watchmen but he’s dead, however fanboys want to see him fight Batman, so he’s back! But not quite.

The obvious candidate is Rorschach’s psychiatrist from Watchmen #6,   but he died in #12, unless of course Johns is going to make him not dead making his small human sacrifice in Watchmen pretty useless and Johns wouldn’t be that on the nose surely?

Oh…

Anyhow, this Rorschach is springing a jailbreak in order to try to find Dr. Manhattan who we assume, will then save the world from the aforementioned nuclear destruction but not before we’ve been treated to a few pages of the sort of stuff Johns seems to think Watchmen was about.

This seems to me to be Johns having his cake and eating it. There’s no real intellectual weight here, and Johns seems to be just throwing in things that makes it all feel Watchmany, but like a saccharine kiss it doesn’t feel true.

By the time we get to Adrian Veidt (complete with cat) acting like Dr. Evil and a brief taster of Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the ‘proper’ DC Universe the idea of Watchmen as a complex, multi-layered book that can be read in many different ways is flushed away for the promise of Ozymandias and Rorschach fighting Batman, and Dr. Manhattan and Superman throwing planets at each other.

There’s a lot of good reviews of this quoting things like ‘it adds to the Watchmen universe‘ but that of course is shite. It didn’t need to have anything else said and if it did then why not try to do something original, new and different rather than be an imitation that’s got it all wrong?  Sure Gary Franks does a good job and as a simple superhero story this isn’t better or worse than many out there however why can’t Johns do some self-reflection and create something that deals with why superhero comics became dark, miserable and the home of ”fin-headed rape” as Warren Ellis once put it? After all in the 21st century he’s played a major part in making superhero comics what he’s now trying to correct and I’d be genuinely interested in seeing Johns test himself as a writer.

Doomsday Clock is not a test. It’s a bad cover version and a last desperate roll of the dice from a company devoid of ideas hoping to cash in on the last big thing it could cash in on. Sure, it may be devoid of an artistic soul and be the equivalent of an own-brand box of cornflakes but it’ll give a core of fans what they’ve fantasised over in some cases for decades.  There isn’t any reason for this comic to exist except to make money and give the impression that DC is still artistically challenging by wrapping itself up in the trappings of what Moore and Gibbons did but like any sad cover version it’ll let you down.

Superman died 25 years ago

1992 was actually a bloody good year. Things were nowhere near as depressing as 2017 but as the Justice League film vaguely entertains people and DC’s piece of Watchmen necrophilia, Doomsday Clock, is due to be released it’s worth looking back at those days 25 years when DC Comics killed off Superman in an event which summed up those times in comics.

Some context; 1992 was a year when comics were still caught up in a massive wave of popularity, and the speculator bubble hadn’t yet spectacularly burst so things that had been building up since comics became noticed by the mainstream in the mid to late 1980’s were now in it’s late capitalism phase. By 1992 Image Comics were a very, very, very large thing with Todd McFarlane’s Spawn proving itself to be simply gigantic in terms of sales which left Marvel and DC trailing in their wake. Marvel decided to pump out mountains of new titles each with variant/gimmick covers (sound familiar?) while DC also did variants, their main tactic was the Big Event and the biggest of the Big Event was the death of Superman. To say DC milked this is an understatement. When Superman #75 was released it came in the standard cover not to mention the bagged edition which came with a Superman black armband.

There was also the scare platinum edition which was exactly the same as the bagged edition but a different colour…

Comic shops were rammed full of people buying the issue just because they thought this was a special issue, but of course us fans knew that it was a gimmick and that Superman would be back. He was back within the year.

The news reports at the time tell the story of a massive possibly profitable comic for collectors and this piece is all about the cash.

And this piece featuring former Marvel editor Jim Shooter and John Byrne hits the nail on the head.

The death of Superman was always a cheap gimmick; probably the cheapest and biggest in an era of cheap gimmicks, but it gave DC enormous publicity, not to mention when the speculator bubble burst, it’d picked up enough readers for it to sail through the worst days of the 90’s in better shape than Marvel who came close to going out of business.

At the time I was working in the industry in Bristol in the vaguely legendary Comics and CD’s on the Gloucester Road, and we had so many copies of this we thought we’d have to eat them. We had boxes upon boxes of them. Some we even had shipped sea-freight (I need to do a blog about how comics were shipped to the UK in detail soon) to us, and we shipped them back to the US where dealers had run out. It was lunacy. In 1993, DC Comics broke Bruce Wayne’s back and gave us a new Batman and the lunacy carried on.

In 1994 the comics bubble finally burst. The speculator boom imploded, comic companies died, shops went bust, and as said even Marvel teetered on the brink yet here we are 25 years on still talking about a cheap gimmick and how the ripples from that event can be seen today.  Last weekend in Kilmarnock I sold a set of the death of Superman that had been lurking for 25 years in a box somewhere because for all the horrible blandness of the comics, they’re still a part of history that’s still ongoing and we have no idea how it’ll end.