Saturday, December 31, 2011

Let's Read Comic Books!

ITEM! Folks, an interesting little book has come across my desk that I have been remiss in telling you about sooner. One need only a passing familiarity with mainstream superhero comics to be aware of the major clusterfuck that is continuity. Even given the different laws of physics, time, and space within the fictional universes of both Marvel and DC Comics, attempting to define and clarify just what is happening when is nearly impossible. Personally, I've just given myself over to it at this point--The red Hulk is in Vegas fighting Blackheart and Operation: Hell on the Earth, and he's also been captured by Norman Osborn's new blend of A.I.M. and H.A.M.M.E.R.? Sure, why not?

But another method, one I take my hat off to, has been enacted by the good folks over at the Collected Editions blog, your trade-wait headquarters. Probably the best thing to happen to the comics industry over the last decade or so has been the proven popularity of the collected edition, known as the trade paperback within the biz. Not only does this open up the market for people too lazy to hassle with the single issues (or in the case of my lifemate Cameron and his fellow Australians, people unable to pay the inordinate cover price those down under are forced to contend with when it comes to "floppies"), it allows even the most hardcore collectors an opportunity to experiment and sample books they may otherwise have let go by the wayside.

But in both cases, there is still the tricky business of keeping the trades straight. There may not be as many of them as there are single issues, but there are still a whole lot to keep tabs on. So what Collected Editions has done to assist you in these matters is put together this handy little e-tome, The Unofficial DC Comics Trade Paperback Timeline, Vol. 1. Modestly priced at a mere .99 cents, this book takes you from 1986's Crisis on Infinite Earths, which has been the de facto starting point of DC continuity since its publication, up through the recent Flashpoint crossover, the final nail before the New 52 started up. As thorough an attempt at this sort of project I've certainly ever seen, the book also contains many editorial footnotes to nudge the reader through the tangled net of superhero continuity, while still allowing one the fun of discovering the history of this multi-faceted storyland. Personally, I've always been a Marvel guy, and though I've been told there are no plans as yet to produce a similar volume for that company's storied publishing past, we can keep our fingers crossed. But in the meantime, follow the link above over to Smashwords and shell out the less-than-a-buck for your own copy today.

ITEM! Speaking of DC and its New 52, the fallout from that grand experiment has mostly settled by now, and from this vantage point, I declare it to be mostly a success. This may have a lot to do with the fact that, as mentioned, I'm not nearly as into DC as I am into Marvel. So really, my own purchasing patterns of superhero books have not been largely thrown off. Basically, any high emotions this most sweeping change in editorial and publishing policy may have evoked in me have gone back to a general apathy for the Distinguished Competition. Except!

Jonah Hex was easily the best book DC had published in years and, for me, ever. The character has long been a favorite of mine, and usually the under-use of such characters doesn't give me a problem, especially when abortions like the 1980s title Hex are the result. Written by Jonah Hex mainstay Michael Fleisher and drawn (for a good chunk of the run, if not the run entire) by one of my long-standing faves, Mark Texeira, Hex actually sounds at least halfway interesting on paper: the Wild West's most fearsome bounty hunter is ripped from his own time and placed in a dystopian 21st century. I own the whole run, if for no other reason than a completist impulse and a hipster's sense of post-irony, but the book just sucks. Full-on horseshit Road Warrior rip-off, as was so popular in the '80s.

Even after DC let Joe Lansdale run wild with the character a bit in a few Vertigo mini-series, I was still very much in the market for a serious, straight-forward western starring this beloved scarface. And I finally received such a book beginning in 2005. Jonah Hex as written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti was like a spaghetti western in comic-book form, and it quickly became the only DC book that I highly anticipated every month. Convinced nothing this good could last, I had prepared myself for a solid 12- or maybe 24-issue run, only to get spoiled by an unprecedented 70 issues before the book got the ax, along with every other last year.

Still, I realize all good things must end and have definitely come to appreciate the rare ending to a superhero saga. Also, Palmiotti and Gray were to continue their work with the character in All-Star Western, which has proven to be an even bigger disappointment than I am to my parents. Taking Hex out of the west and putting him down into Victorian-era Gotham City, though it smacks of a pussified attempt to bring the book into a more Bat-friendly arena, was not a bad idea. But the book is simply boring, which is an unforgivable offense. All the little touches and flourishes found in Jonah Hex are gone, and I am forced to assume editorial interference has killed this golden goose. Besides my theory as to the setting, I also feel that the bigwigs over at DC felt the book needed to have any perceived rough edges sanded off so that it would fit better into the New 52, even on "The Edge" with the other non-superhero-y books (real edgy, fellas).
Whether I'm right or wrong, you still couldn't convince me this book isn't just a big snooze (not that you were trying to), even without the previous book's shadow looming over it.

TL;DR: Fuckin' bring back a real Jonah Hex book, man. Bad enough the Human Target was left out of this reboot entirely.

ITEM! Speaking of making mine Marvel, a couple books in particular have been knocking me out from the House of Ideas lately. Firstly, Journey into Mystery had been one of those books of which I honestly cannot say why I started picking it up, beyond just that collector/completist impulse. It started up for the third time in conjunction with Fear Itself, and these days when it comes to Marvel crossovers, I just give in and buy all the tie-ins, since I'm already regularly buying most of them anyways. But even though Dougie Braithwaite stopped drawing it, I kept right on buying it, and the current story, "The Terrorism Myth," has dispelled any passivity I had towards this book. Kieron Gillen made his first big splash as a comics writer with the Image book, Phonogram, with artist Jamie McKelvie (whom it seems Gillen has managed to get in over at Marvel lately, as well). I've heard nothing but good things about Phonogram, from such luminaries as Warren Ellis and, more importantly, my buddy Frank, but to be honest, it looked like it was about music and the scene and all that, and I am way too overexposed to that sorta thing, as tragically hip as I am (please kill me). But I'd dug Gillen's work on Thor (no small feat, following JMS) and Generation Hope enough to stick with this book. It's been well worth it, babies.
"The Terrorism Myth" features a couple of my favorite Marvel C-listers, the Son of Satan and Nightmare, and it really feels to me like the first arc that Gillen's really let his playful side out to romp around. The guy has, in my mind, superseded such masters of cute-yet-unobnoxious dialogue like Brian K. Vaughan. So yeah, you wanna pick this book up.

Wolverine and the X-Men was a no-brainer, since it featured Wolverine, for whom I am still an unabashed (well, maybe lightly abashed) fanboy, and is written by Jason Aaron, whose work I will never not read.
The nice surprise here is that, as consistently bowled over as I am by Aaron's more serious and gritty stuff like Scalped and PunisherMAX, Wolverine and the X-Men is another great example of a fun book that doesn't make me wanna kill myself. As an inveterate asshole, the notion of "fun" in comics garners at the very least an eyeroll from me--this is serious, stuff, man, not fuckin' kiddie books! I think that might largely come from the general corniness that comes from "fun" books like a lot of silver age stuff or fuckin' Archie and the old Star line, shit like that. But no, you give "fun" material to writers like Gillen and Aaron, and you can take those scare-quotes off fun. Wolverine and the X-Men more heartily rings of the best Claremont/Byrne era stuff since Ed Brubaker's run on Uncanny X-Men a few years ago. So really, it's no surprise that a writer as versatile as Aaron should be able to write books of massively different tone; I guess I'm just surprised I don't have my head so far up my ass as to not notice and appreciate that.

Relative newcomer Nick Bradshaw is the artist on Wolverine and the X-Men, and surprisingly (a real surprise, this time), the kid's growing on me. Bradshaw is obviously hugely, hugely influenced by the work of Art Adams, and hey, why not. Adams is without doubt one of the finest artists to come out of the '80s, but at first Bradshaw's work rubbed me the wrong way in this regard. It wasn't that his style so readily called Adams to mind--it was never for me an issue of homage vs. rip-off. It was mostly, I think, that it just wasn't very good. I dunno if Bradshaw's work has just gotten better in the very short time I've been reading it or if I've just developed a taste for it, but I still very clearly remember thinking he drew like Adams if every character Adams drew had the mumps. Ugh, I'm losing my thread: basically what I'm getting at is Nick Bradshaw is either a better artist that I thought he was even a couple weeks ago, or that I am not as astute a comics-art critic as I might want you to believe. I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide or, what is more likely, to have stopped giving a shit paragraphs ago.

Oh, babies, I'd love to write more, but I fear we're both getting tired of this post, n'est-ce pas? So just a few quick endnotes here:

-Make mine Marvel.

-Also make mine Atomic Robo.

-I might have to drop glamourpuss. I still love Dave Sim, despite (because of?) how out of his mind he is, but this shit is just getting boring. Get to the fuckin' car crash already, Dave.

-Recently bought and read the final issue of Marvel's U.S. 1 from 1984. Comics are weird.

-Also, please dig the latest webcomic from my buddies over at R Squared, Yva Starling: Troubleshooter. You won't regret it.

-Did I say, "Make mine Marvel"? I did.