DC, The Question #32, written by Denny O’Neil, drawn by Denys Cowan, 1989 The Question was one of the first series I ever pulled out of the bargain bin en masse. Issues 1-31 were lined up, ready to be snatched by the first smart person with enough coin. I took a chance and it paid off big time. The Question was a different breed of comic book. It was perhaps the first series to convince me that some of the best books you can buy are also the cheapest and easiest to find.
What made Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan’s series so special? To start on a negative note, they took a cool, faceless, trench-coat wearing detective type and turned him into a Patrick Swayze vigilante. Gone were the awesome fedoras, noir appeal and vintage vibe. Huge, wavy hair, trucker caps, tight blue jeans and power suits were the order of the day. The fashion sense did not age well, but fortunately the art has. Denys Cowan is a master of the twisted, angular sketch. With such an edgy style, I was surprised to find his layouts so clear and creative. Cowan clearly knew what he was doing and makes even the cheesiest 80s fashion look awesome. His villains were the vilest, his women the most empowered, and his edge-of-the law heroes tougher than Clint Eastwood in his prime.
This issue, 32, tackles the Vietnam War and it’s suitably disturbing. At times Cowan almost seems to be drawing a horror book and the effect is powerful. That’s another thing that made this series so special! O’Neil wasn’t afraid to broach difficult, serious topics. Early issues dealt with social outcasts, corrupt politicians and a poverty-stricken city on the edge—and everything was done with all due respect. Neglectful parenting wasn’t explained in an “after school special” way, nor was it simply an excuse for a criminal’s behaviour—it was a topic that was explored in a serious manner, creating a compelling crime book in the process. O’Neil knew how to take heavy, often philosophical concepts, combine them with meaningful, relevant issues and create a brilliant, dark crime book.
I recently completed my Question collection and cannot recommend this series highly enough. I was particularly pleased that the issue I jumped back in at, 32, was a standout for the series. It combines everything that made the title great with a particularly haunting tale of PTSD, the evils of war and the nature of crime. It’s the kind of book that you’d expect to read once, enjoy and forget about, but its effects were devastatingly powerful. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
DC, 1st Issue Special #12 (Starman), written by Gerry Conway, drawn by Mike Vosburg and Mike Royer, 1976
If you’ve read James Robinson’s DC work, you’ll know he has a particular affinity for Mikaal Tomas, the blue skinned Starman. If you never got to read Robinson’s Starman, Justice League or other works you might not know this character exsists. Well, here’s where it all began, folks.
I was fortunate enough to find this first appearance of Mikaal for just $1. I’ve always been fascinated with the Starman legacy and the different characters that have held the title. With 1st Issue Special, DC was able to test out both old and new properties to see if they could justify more stories. It’s painfully clear that this creation from Gerry Conway, Mike Vosburg and Mike Royer is simply a “try-out”.
Our story begins in a disappointingly simply manner. Mikaal lands on earth, gets in a fight with some street thugs and finds some helpful humans. By the time the alien villains show up to take on our new “Starman”, the issue ends. It’s as simple as that, which proves to be the issue’s biggest fault. Everything here is simple. Mikaal’s story, the villains plan, the art, the dialogue—every facet of this book is predictable and without originality. Except the Joe Kubert cover—that thing is amazing (if not a tad misleading).
There isn’t much to say about Starman. Thanks to this book we would get some very entertaining stories in the future, but this issue alone doesn’t provide much to be proud of. I didn’t hate it, but I wanted to enjoy it much more than I actually did. Pick this one up if you’re a Starman fan if only for the passing interest and collectability. If you’re looking for an intriguing story, look elsewhere.
Marvel, Captain Marvel #3,5, written by Fabian Nicieza, drawn by Ed Benes and Daerick (or perhaps Darrick) Gross, 1996
I complain about the fashion sense of the 80s, but the art sense of the 90s was much worse.
I love Peter David’s Captain Marvel from 2000. That series has sort of clouded my judgement though—I figured I’d enjoy anything with Genis Vell (inheritor to the Captain Marvel role). Turns out, I do not. This series from Fabian Nicieza has good intentions, but these two issues have too many flaws.
First, let’s talk story. With issue 3 we see Genis battle Adam the X-Treme. They meet on a beach, pull each other’s hair and end up battling Eric the Red. Perhaps I read this book too late at night, with sleep just around the corner, because I didn’t understand an inch of this story. Something about a frame-up, the Shi’ar and the X-Treme’s inheritance—I don’t know. One of the major issues is dialogue. It’s concerned with style over substance. The Cap and Adam chat like the 90s slackers they were meant to be but instead of coming off as funny or slick, it’s all very annoying and confusing.
Issue 5 does a little better with plot, but not much better in the dialogue department. Here we see Genis explore cosmic religion. He gets curious, finds a planet with a bunch of dead people and learns a thing or two about what it means to “be a God”. It sounds more interesting than it is. It takes much too long to get into the meat of the story, and once we’re there it’s quickly rushed through. Battling a “God Stalker” Celestial should have been epic, but instead it was a quick means to an end. The final message is powerful, but with Genis flying around saying stuff like “That wouldn’t be grooby” (sic) and “fry my buns” it’s hard to take anything seriously. This was a well-intentioned story, destroyed by its own stylistic choices.
And speaking of style, I regret that I now must inform you about the art. It’s bad. Very, very bad. If you’re a big fan of early Ed Benes and poor imitations of Jim Lee, you might find something to enjoy, but I hated it. The great Imagification of Marvel comics may have been a smart move at the time, but it has left a dirty stain on the bargain bin. Both Benes and Daerick (spelled Darrick in another section of the book) Gross draw exactly what editorial was looking for in 1996—poorly constructed figures, awful layouts with confusing angles, designs and posturing, women with no hips and busts the size of… I don’t know, you fill in the rest. It’s just bad, okay?
Stay far away from this series. It wants to be quirky, fun and deep at the same time, but comes off as over-stylized, immature gibberish that’s too “extreme” for its own good. Go read Peter David’s Captain Marvel, it’s much more enjoyable.
DC, JSA All-Stars #4-8, written by Matthew Sturges and Jen Van Meter, drawn by Freddie Williams II and Travis Moore, 2010
The “Geoff Johns era” of Justice Society books was pretty great. His run on JSA was long and defining—his reboot into The Justice Society of America even better. I loved that series dearly, with all it’s beautiful Dale Eaglesham art and legacy character building. When Johns finally stepped away from the property, Bill Willingham came aboard to the main series and we got a spinoff from Willingham cohort Matthew Sturges, this here JSA All-Stars. I gave both new creative teams a try but quickly dropped both series. They simply lacked the magic Johns had. JSA All-Stars #3 was the last issue I paid full price for.
Finding issues 4+ in the bargain bins made picking up this series again an easy decision. Things start out pretty nicely with Sturges trying his hand at fleshing out the characters. He pays particular attention to the JSA stories of the past, reintroducing Johnny Sorrow and the King of Tears. He also highlights Sand, one of my favourite legacy heroes with one of the coolest costumes in comics. Unfortunately, the story isn’t anything special and it quickly devolves into a slugfest with few interesting twists. Sturges’ dialogue isn’t great either, as it seems he understands the character’s roles but not their unique personalities. Things feel like cardboard—too by-the-books and not creative enough. There’re some attempts at emotion, but nothing feels earned. It’s not unreadable or even particularly bad, it just lacks what Johns had infused the title with.
Freddie Williams II is an interesting artist. His work is heavy on digital manipulation (he did write The DC Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics, after all) but it doesn’t bother me like other digital work does. He’s clearly knows where the line is between smart, tasteful digital work and overly showy, distracting effects. That being said, his art can be something of an eyesore as well. That isn’t to say it’s bad, but with the bold, rich colours (not his doing) and huge amount of detail, dissecting every panel can be an actual strain on the eyes. Some of his most brilliant panels are also those that can give you a headache. There’s just so much packed in here, and it’s all so dynamic and demanding that one simply needs to look away occasionally. Don’t count this against Williams, though, he draws a very fine comic book, it’s just an overload.
One of the reasons I dropped JSA All-Stars in the first place was the $3.99 price tag. Back in 2010, this seemed like too much to pay for a comic book I was only casually enjoying. But guess what? We didn’t just get a single comic book story for that price; DC included a surprisingly lengthy second feature as well! We didn’t know how well we had it back then.
The second feature here (Hourman and Liberty Belle) should have been my favourite part of the book. I love Hourman and Liberty Belle and would be over the moon if they got their own title. They are underused characters with an incredible amount of potential, rich legacies and an interesting relationship. How’d all that go to waste? Well, writer Jen Van Meter gives us a spin on the National Treasure formula and instead of a compelling, original story, we get a misguided adventure with the uninteresting villains Icicle and Tigress. While the foursome hunt for some mystical artifact, they constantly betray each other and evade being hunted by a mysterious villain. I lost interest fast and the feature continues all the way into issue 8 (perhaps even beyond, I have more issues to read). I wanted to like this feature so, so much, especially with the underrated art from Travis Moore, but it was a classic case of wasted potential. I don’t want to let this disappointing second feature cloud my judgement of the series, but it angers me. I want to see Hourman and Liberty Belle get another crack at their own stories, but I don’t see that happening ever again.
So should you pick up these issues? Maybe. I’d grab issues 1-3 and see what you think of Sturges’ and Williams’ style. If you can get into it, these issues might be for you. I’d go back and read Geoff Johns’ Justice Society of America though, that series was a real winner!