It’s been suggested on more than one occasion that perhaps I read too much…
Doesn’t make for much of a vice, but if forced to identify its closest approximation…my penchant for buying (and later reading) books in large quantity would certainly apply. Discounted books are essentially my own personal Kryptonite, which is particularly dangerous given that I’ve been working in a bookstore for five years. I do pretty well with that, but if I can get ’em for even more than thirty percent off!? Man, come on…just ask my guys Nate and Craig who went from watching me plan to leave Wiz World early on Sunday afternoon, to helping me scour the floor for every decent half price trade I could find. Left the place maybe five minutes before they closed the doors, and with thirteen trades, after dropping only 104 dollars. Yes, I know, impressive, but I have gotten quite good at this. And it ultimately ensures the “rule of ten,” which of course refers to the ratio of read to unread books in the home library.
Similar to my overriding fear that I’ll end up trapped outside the house without my notebook, I’m psychologically required to have at least ten books that I haven’t read in-house. This is at all times. Because the only thing worse than having nothing to write on is having nothing new to read. So there are always books stacked on the floor, and in a return to classic Ambidextrous form, this week we’re going to talk about some of them…the ones that were good anyway. Let us not speak of the others, as we begin with a title mentioned in a previous piece, in a somewhat unfavorable light…
Young Avengers Vol. 2: Family Matters (Allan Heinberg/Jimmy Cheung/Various)
I remember giving this book a fair beating couple years back in a volatile column that subsequently sparked a contentious debate with one of my Marvel editors. It also garnered the most mail I’ve ever received for a piece, which wasn’t a huge surprise given the intense feelings that almost always emerge when people begin talking about the representation (or lack thereof) of minority characters in mainstream comics. And Young Avengers had a great one, the grandson of Isaiah Bradley, the original Captain America. The initial conceit is that after a fight, young Elijah required a blood transfusion that granted him some of the super-powered abilities his grandfather once had. Turns out that’s not true at all and Elijah only has powers because of the street drug MGH that he’s been injecting himself with when no one’s looking.
So essentially, this incredibly promising young black character is little more than an addict, and in the wake of my well-documented feelings about what went down in Runaways with Alex Wilder, it only looked like another wasted opportunity. And as a writer, I’m supposed to be able to understand that no character should feel completely safe or untouchable, because it cheapens and ultimately limits the narrative possibilities. The only thing worse than having no minority characters in comics are having ones that are poorly written, and the best characters are undeniably ones that experience some level of turmoil and/or drama that serves to define them. In that sense, I completely understood the motivation here, but on another more visceral level…it looked like they’d done it again. Like the creators again underestimated how notable it was to have a minority character that didn’t seem the product of a “create an ethnic character” do-it-yourself kit, and as a result, they missed a golden opportunity.
But I digress…even I must realize that this isn’t such an intense personal issue for everyone else in and reading comics. So, after some prodding I finished out my Young Avengers run and having read the two trades somewhat together, the character arc for Eli casts him in a much more favorable light than I’d imagined. Even after his transgressions are discovered, he remains the most critical member of the fledgling team and is welcomed back with open arms that he doesn’t feel worthy of walking into. His regret and shame is conveyed in a very real and honest light and when the smoke clears, Eli proves himself a hero and is rewarded with the powers he so desperately wanted. This could’ve very well been the planned conclusion all along and having the chance to see everything develop takes away most of the sting I initially felt. Props to Allan Heinberg for his handling of Elijah Bradley, and apologies for jumping the gun on this. Young Avengers was a great book and Eli was a huge, huge part of that, even with his faults.
DMZ Vol. 2: Body of a Journalist (Brian Wood/Riccardo Burchielli/Kristian Donaldson)
So incredibly glad that I bought another DMZ trade. Since the moment it was announced, it sounded like the kind of series that would be just perfect for me, and even more perfect for Brian Wood to be writing. But the collection of the first issues felt flat to me, with all of the characters exhibiting themselves in one-dimensional fashion and the heart of the book somewhat obscured by your typical new series growing pains. So much space is devoted to introducing this new environment that the characters often retreat into the background to allow the world to slowly build. However, DMZ promises quite a world, so it wasn’t that hard to give it a little extra time to develop and with a couple more chapters under his belt, Wood has turned DMZ into something of a spiritual successor to Ellis’ Transmetropolitan.
That was a title that just struck you as important on several occasions throughout its run, the stories and perspectives raised feeling entirely necessary and in most cases long overdue. With this second trade, DMZ raises the stakes and turns Matthew Roth into the kind of series lead that you’d expect from Vertigo, with an individual and unflinching personality that drives every single story into interesting directions. Wood seems to be a firm believer in “the power of the press,” at least when they’re allowed to tell the public the actual truth, and Roth becomes an extension and conduit of that sentiment when he’s caught between two rival forces that need him to tell their version of it. The stakes are nothing less than all-out war and only a simple photographer that ended up there almost completely by accident can stop it. And he does this with a handful of damaging pictures, a cell phone, and a list of demands that simply cannot be ignored. It was also a fantastic idea to devote a chapter to Zee’s untold story, especially since it allowed Wood to cleverly weave some of the book’s history into the narrative. The capper is the “Guide to NY” that’s completely produced by Brian Wood, in what amounts to part photo journal, part travelogue, and part users’ guide to the world of the DMZ.
If there’s anyone else out there who wasn’t immediately enamored with this book on first read, please give this collection a try because you will change your mind. DMZ now has everything going for it: the tight premise, the pointed social commentary, and now the incredibly likable and defined main characters that you not only want to survive this terrible situation, but to find a way to end it.
Gotham Central Vol. 5: Dead Robin (Greg Rucka/Ed Brubaker/Kano/Stefano Gaudiano)
For several years, this was the best book DC was publishing. Anyone reading it on a monthly basis of course knew this, but it never seemed enough of you were. The series “cancellation” was largely attributed to feelings amongst the creative team that all stories had been extinguished, and even though it was a shame to see it end, this collection makes it hard to disagree with that assessment. This final run is propelled by its sense of inevitability, that if this wasn’t in fact the end, then it probably should be. Gotham Central had some fantastic story arcs during its run (Half a Life, Soft Targets, etc.) but this is truly its finest moment. Where every character moment and plot twist comes crashing down, leaving Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen irrevocably altered, and more importantly, in a way that you never could’ve predicted, but yet makes perfect sense in the end.
Dead Robin is just a great high concept given an even greater execution. What if the GCPD arrived to a crime scene and found the body of Robin, the Boy Wonder? What kinds of directions could a story like that take, given all the possible implications of that moment? What is Batman’s involvement, which one of the lunatics in Arkham is loose this week, what do the Teen Titans have to say for themselves, and why has the killer chosen such a public and sensationalized way of announcing himself? All of these bases and more are fully covered, but as strong as the premises for the murders and culprits always are, this ground’s-eye view of Gotham is all about character. What kind of cop wants to work in the most screwed up city on Earth? And what can be the consequences of that decision?
Montoya and Allen have frequently remained the focal points, but the squad room is packed with a mix of supporting players that cause GC to feel like its populated with real people, with their own personalities and dimensions. Many of them receive an increased spotlight here, just as a byproduct of how personal the final arc becomes for Renee and Cris. It’s heartbreaking to watch Sawyer inform Montoya that her partner has been murdered, or to witness Renee’s poor attempts at consoling Allen’s wife and children. Many of the best scenes are framed through the eyes of other characters as they watch their friends, colleagues, and family members slowly destroyed by the realities of Gotham, and if you’ve been following things from the beginning, you understand the full gravity of the conflicts and events.
Post-crisis these characters are running around the DCU as The Question and The Spectre, but before that they were two really good cops on the GCPD, whose great victories and terrible defeats all occurred within the pages of this title. One of those books that fans and creators will think back on incredibly fondly for years to come, written by two of the most skilled crime writers in comics, and illustrated by an incredible group of artists that included Michael Lark, Kano, and Stefano Gaudiano.
Star Wars Legacy Vol. 1: Broken (John Ostrander/Jan Duursema)
Understand that I have a serious fanboy philosophical difference with this title, without even reading a word of it. In high school, I dabbled a bit with the “extended universe” stuff that happens after Jedi, where the main characters go off and get married, have kids, etc. All of it seemed very fun stuff and a logical extension of the mythology, and while the characters still faced some considerable threats, there was always an underlying optimism that Skywalker and company would set things right and eventually repair the damage done by the Empire. That from this point forward, there would always be “a new hope.” With Legacy, Dark Horse is finally able to travel past episode 6, without being fearful of tripping over dozens and dozens of novel based continuity points. Which has the unfortunate byproduct of somewhat invalidating everything that’s come before, and in some childish way, lighting fire to the boy who’s been drawn to anything Star Wars for close to two decades now.
More than a century after Return of the Jedi, the entire world has turned to absolute shit…again. As the reset button rears its ugly head, the Sith are running rampant, with the Jedi Knights gettin’ their natural asses kicked after somehow allowing their opposites to again rise to prominence. The leaders and institutions are mired in corruption, and everything is turning dark. All possible hope lies with Cade Skywalker, who’s effectively turned his back on his heritage and patronage, but is soon drawn by coincidence or fate, into a situation that exposes who and what he actually is. And naturally, whichever side of the newly renewed conflict between Jedi and Sith that comes to possess his great abilities will tip the balance of the Force forever.
Taken on its own merits, this is a quality book. The characters (much like the storyline) intentionally invokes memories of the original cast and set-up: the roguish bounty hunters in the cool ship sporting a set of carefully hidden morals, the hidden or forgotten hero that could quickly become the most important man in the galaxy, the dark lord obsessed with maintaining his power and spreading his influence, it’s all pulled from a familiar well. But cool as it is, I just don’t like the implication that the good guys didn’t pull it out in the end. For the same reason I couldn’t fully enjoy The Empire Strikes Back until adolescence, Legacy’s bleak status quo yanks me out of the narrative and reminds me of every other “dark future” I’ve seen in movies, comics, etc. Without the extremely high emotional attachment to the original story, it’s obvious that I would enjoy this title immensely, but as it is, things feel a little artificial, as if this environment would never have come into being under the influence of the characters that formed the foundation.
But for everyone else, who isn’t a psycho Star Wars fanboy, I’m sure Legacy will interest you just fine. And because I’m a psycho Star Wars fanboy, I can’t even promise with any real conviction that I won’t in fact purchase the next trade. You know…just to see what happens…
Doctor Strange: The Oath (Brian K. Vaughan/Marcos Martin)
Think this one snuck up on a lot of people. With the exception of Runaways, Vaughan hasn’t really maintained a large presence over at Marvel the last couple years, but out of nowhere came this absolute gem of a mini. Strange seems to be one of those characters that a lot of fans (and creators) are in love with, but whose history and abilities make him difficult to plug into. The reference points that guys like Spider-Man or the X-Men have just don’t exist here, and in fact, Stephen Strange was an admitted asshole before becoming the “Sorcerer Supreme.” So what does Vaughan do with this bit of narrative dilemma? Very simple…he makes his story about the deep, prevailing friendship between two men that on the surface appear as nothing more than master and servant. Wong has cancer, and Stephen Strange will endure anything to save his life.
Right there the motivation of the greatest mage in the Marvel U is reduced to its barest form and for five action packed issues, we want Strange to beat the odds. And to do it he has to take on mercenaries with enchanted weapons, a possible equal in the dark arts with every reason to hold a grudge, demons in strange and terrible dimensions, a doctor that’s trying to keep him upright after surviving a gunshot wound from the aforementioned enchanted weapon, and a pharmaceutical company that doesn’t think the human race has earned a cure for cancer. Honestly, even that barely scratches the surface of “The Oath” but it’s a downright perfect marriage of words and pictures, because without Martin’s incredible sense of design and storytelling, even Vaughan’s incredibly strong premise might just fall to pieces. Instead, he complements and strengthens the narrative and ensures that when the curtain falls you feel like this is a character you’d definitely read about on a monthly basis.
Sleeper hit of last year, no question.
Batman: Year 100 (Paul Pope)
This might be the understatement of the century but…Paul Pope needs to write and draw more comics, because whenever he does they are quite excellent. Yes, yes, I should’ve read this long ago given my fondness for the black & white short Pope did forever ago, and the fantastic “Teenage Sidekick” story from his issue of SOLO (Eisner-Award winning, by the way) but as usual, I’ve gotten behind and this is what happens when that happens. You miss one of the best opening sequences in recent memory, as a bleeding Batman sprints across the Gotham rooftops, trying to escape a pack of crazed dogs with hi-res cameras built into their eyes. And right when you come to a point where you can successfully process that, the cops show up and the scene intensifies yet again. It’s hard to beat an expertly designed chase sequence, and the entire first issue is just that, Batman clearing one incredible obstacle, then charging headfirst into the next, before ultimately reaching safety. Near death, things close with two very simple words: he’ll survive.
Year 100 takes place in a somewhat typical “grim future,” but the artistry and storytelling of Pope makes it anything but. There’s a rawness and grit to his interpretation of Batman that persists even into a future filled with holographic projectors and psychic cops. We know this is the future but nothing has changed much, the government and police are still horribly corrupt, individual freedoms have been eroded away, and the Batman is the one symbol that the establishment cannot control. So they do everything in their power to stop him, hoping to defeat him and unmask him as a message to all others: do what you’re told or else.
But future or not, this is Batman we’re talking about, even if under Pope’s pencils his body language and mannerisms are wholly unique. He’s got the gadgets, the friends, and the resources to do what needs to be done, and no inclination to apologize for his actions. There’s never any doubt that the title character will win out, but the imagery of this story makes it required reading. You’ve never read a Batman story that looked or sounded quite like this one, and it’s a testament to both the character and the creator that the pairing works so well.
Pope should essentially be offered a blank check for work within the DCU. Anything he wants to do, regardless of character and/or concept should be approved immediately and put into production. His work and vision is simply that good and the stands could only benefit from more comics by him. Oh, and one last thing…find the Batman statue based on his artwork and buy it immediately. Gorgeous piece of work, if you’re into that sort of thing…
That’s all for this week, folks. Will be trying to maintain a weekly schedule over the next month or so as I get back into the swing of things. Interviews coming, new features coming, and before long we’ll really have to discuss The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury…