King Hell/Tundra, The Maximortal #1-6, written and drawn by Rick Veitch, 1992-1993
I love a good superhero deconstruction. They became all the rage for a while, with seemingly every creator wanting to tackle “their version” of a classic character. I’m fairly certain there are more analogues of Superman out there than any other character, and rightfully so. You name it, we’ve seen it—there’s Alan Moore take on the mythos in Supreme (and one could argue in Miracleman as well), Mark Millar’s Superior, Hyperion from Supreme Power, Apollo back in the Wildstorm days, whatever The Sentry was supposed to be for Marvel—the list goes on and on, and I’m not even including all the Else-worlds and alternate versions from DC proper. The point is, everyone’s got their own take on the original superhero and Rick Veitch’s might be my favourite.
You see, The Maximortal isn’t a “what if Superman was evil?” or a “what if he was born here?” or anything like that. It’s a sick, twisted look at our world and the potential impact a superpowered being might have. Note: I didn’t say superhero. I’m missing the elusive 7th and final issue of this series, but throughout everything I’ve read so far, the Maximortal never becomes anything resembling a hero. He’s never even much of a villain either, more just an oddity that shapes certain lives and the fate of America. But that’s not giving this series enough credit. This is one of the weirdest, most intriguing comics I’ve ever read.
Let’s start from the beginning—an alien (I assume) steals some human DNA and creates our little Maximortal in a strange egg, hurling him into 1900’s rural America. A couple finds the egg, takes the “baby” home and adopts him as their own. This baby, strangely, is almost a perfect human specimen—tiny but hard as a rock with muscles and perfectly styled blonde hair. It’s a little Apollo, and it proves that its temper tantrums cause more trouble than your average baby. That’s bad news for everyone.
Now I’m tempted to keep going, because I want to explain every little eccentricity and discuss all the bizarre tropes, symbolism and themes—but this is a series you need to read and discover for yourself. Subsequent issues feature Sherlock Holmes, Oppenheimer and the atom bomb, Senator McCarthy, and the seedy underbelly of Hollywood (though why Peter Lorre is in this book, I’m not sure). Running concurrently with the tale of the Maximortal is a (inflated but not exactly fictional) retelling of the creation of Superman (here represented as Trueman), the hardships of his creators and their ownership rights back in the day. It’s all an exaggeration, but there’s truth to it as two young hopefuls create Trueman (essentially the mirror image of the Maximortal), only to have him stolen and exploited by studio execs. It’s a biting tale written at a time when Siegel and Shuster’s plight wasn’t exactly common knowledge, but it occasionally extends its reach and paints some overly broad strokes.
Oh, and then there’s El Guano, a mescaline-addicted Mexican shaman that uses excrement to power his magic and discovers that Trueman’s creator’s dung has the power to hurt the Maximortal. Yeah, it’s strange, but it was also very well done and one of my favourite parts of the series.
Honestly, this book was a bizarre look at the Superman mythos that made me feel equal parts uncomfortable, thrilled and intrigued. The story is masterfully told and the art is professional, beautiful and horrific (I’m super glad I got the original issues—coloured wonderfully by Sam Parsons!). The last time I felt this excited/grossed-out was when I finished Ed the Happy Clown—and I never thought anything could replicate that feeling!
If you find The Maximortal, buy it. Veitch is a great creator, and this is by far my favourite of his works. A sharp, scary, smart alternative series like this one is not to be missed.
:01 First Second, Battling Boy, written and drawn by Paul Pope, 2013
So I finally got around to reading Battling Boy and I must say I’m disappointed. Not because it isn’t a brilliant piece of storytelling with eye-popping art and some of the best world-building in comic’s recent history—it’s all those things! The problem is it’s essentially an “issue 1”. There isn’t a complete story in these pages and I honestly feel ripped off. We get great set-up, a plot that rolls along nicely and a complete non-ending. I was hoping for something of a standalone story with room for a continuation, but the end of this book feels more like the middle of the story—there isn’t even much of a cliff-hanger!
Dammit Paul Pope! I want the rest of my Battling Boy now!
That issue aside, this book is just plain awesome. If you’re familiar with Pope’s art, I don’t really need to talk about it, do I? It’s punk rock magic. Better critics than I can use beautiful words and attempt to paint a Paul Pope picture, but suffice to say his art will leave you in awe.
The story is even better than I’d hoped. Battling Boy comes from a mystical realm where kids are launched into other dimensions at the age of 13 to become heroes. What surprised me the most was BB’s relationship with his father—finally we get a tale of fiction where the father is portrayed as a loving parent who would do anything for their child, while essentially being a heavy-metal version of Thor. There’s no tough-love here, no abusive relationships—in fact every character in this book seems to have supportive family and it’s incredibly refreshing.
I mean, this is a story where children get kidnapped in the night, monsters invade the town and a young girl has to come to terms with her father’s death—but there’s a sense of optimism to everything. Pope directed this book to the young adult audience and it’s perfect for that age range. Battling Boy wears different t-shirts to channel different animal powers and is tasked with taking out the street gangs and dangerous roaming monsters of the city. If I was younger I’d be so into this. Heck, who am I kidding, I am so into this!
If you want a beautiful looking comic book, in an easy digestible size, that you can hand to kids in grades 7-12, this is the one. Yes, it’s violent, but it’s more age appropriate than your average Batman. And if you’re like me, you’ll want this book because it’s an awesome slice of Paul Pope mastery. It’s a comic everyone can (and will, trust me!) enjoy!
:01 First Second, Boxers & Saints, written and drawn by Gene Luen Yang, 2013
You may think my praise-gauge is shattered after talking about the preceding books, but here’s the kicker—Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is one of the best comic book experiences I’ve ever had. Have you ever tackled a book, maybe a comic, maybe a novel, and said “Oh I’ll just read a bit” only to find yourself finishing the whole thing in one sitting? That happened to me twice here.
I first got excited for this pair of books when I recorded an interview with Yang back at 2013’s San Diego Comicon. The way he described his personal experiences, the history behind the book—well, he was one smooth salesman. I wanted to read it right then and there! Of course, SDCC on the whole is a bit of a dizzying experience and I soon forgot about the books. When I finally received them for my birthday this year I was thrilled beyond measure, and couldn’t wait to tear into them. And tear I did! I sat down and chewed through the entirety of Boxers in one sitting. I had to stop myself from tackling Saints right then and there, but as soon as I woke up the next morning I grabbed it and finished it. My heart raced. It was one of those reading experiences that ends in a daze, leaving you stunned.
I’m by no means the salesman Yang was, but let me at least tickle your curiosity. These books can be read in any order, but I started with Boxers. It’s the story of a young Chinese boy at the turn of the century (the 1890-1900 turn, that is) who witnesses the influx of western culture and the influence of Christianity in rural China. For this young boy, a negative experience with westerners early on shapes his fate and he eventually rises to lead the historical Boxer Uprising. To him, Christianity is the evil that’s infecting his land, destroying the way of life he’s so fond of. Westerners are devils that are slowly digging their claws into the fabric of China and taking over. With the story Yang tells, it’s easy to see how our protagonist comes to these conclusions. And that’s the beauty of it! We get a fair, believable and sympathetic look at each side of this war. It’s powerful stuff.
Now our Boxers protagonist is but a lowly farmhand, nothing of the warrior type. A travelling salesman arrives and teaches his village kung-fu, setting off a series of events that will lead to our character channeling the power of the kings, myths and gods before him. The ritual he learns and teaches others transforms him from a young, innocent boy into the powerful ghost of the first Emperor of China. Yang drenches these scenes of colour, bringing the legends of old to fiery, passionate life. Boxers is a violent, vibrant book, chronicling the Chinese rebels who ravaged the countryside slaying westerners and Chinese Christians alike. It also has surprising, effective moments of levity and heartbreaking, absolutely devastating dramatic turns. I said it once (or twice) and I’ll say it again—I could not put this book down!
Now the sister book, Saints, takes on a decidedly different tone. The vivid colours of Boxers are all but absent, replaced with greys, blacks and whites. Only the rare glow of gold splashes onto the pages, completely appropriate given the themes and tone of this book. Here, a young girl is hated by her family. She was the fourth-born and all her sisters had perished shortly after birth. Her grandfather is convinced she is the devil and shuns her, so she embraces her fate. She does everything is her power to become “devil-like”, because it’s what she’s told she is, and even bad attention is better than being completely forgotten. She soon discovers a Chinese Christian doctor who takes her in, eagerly showing her the gospels and sharing his faith. In brilliantly realistic fashion, she finds the bible a bore. But here amongst the Chinese Christians, she feels loved for the first time. She feels accepted. She finally feels she has a purpose. When the ghost of Joan of Arc visits her (and continues to throughout the book), she decides she’s found her destiny—to become the female warrior that saves China!
Each story provides us with flawed protagonists, giving us a clear idea of why they do the things they do, how they make the mistakes they do and why a war started over such things. Equal respect is given to the rural Chinese way of life and the beauty of Christianity. By showing us both sides of the coin Yang shows us how we’re all shaped by our surroundings, pivotal events and upbringing. We understand why someone would burn down a village of innocents or abandon their family.
It’s powerful, powerful stuff. You’ll find yourself laughing, crying, reflecting on your childhood and even rethinking the state your life’s in right now. I want to recommend these books to everyone. Just thinking about them—man, I have to go lie down.