Superman Trade Post: Secret Origin & Secret Identity

superman secret origin Superman: Secret Origin (DC)
Written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Gary Frank
Collects Superman: Secret Origin #1-6

When I started reading Superman comics, the character was about six years out from his post-Crisis reboot which de-powered him a bit and made a conscientious effort to make him the last Kryptonian (hence a clone Superboy and extra-dimensional shape-shifting Supergirl). Another major tenet of those days was that Superman because Superman as an adult. This was the Superman I knew, though I also understood that the Golden and Silver Age were jam packed with elements that didn’t fit into that rubric. I try my best to keep an open mind for Superman stories that don’t fit into that mold, but sometimes they throw me for a loop. Luckily, I didn’t have that problem with Geoff Johns’ retelling of the Man of Steel’s life in Secret Origin.

Johns worked with the amazing Gary Frank on this miniseries after they teamed up on Action Comics a few times. Essentially, this is the definitive origin story for the post-Infinite Crisis DCU which has since gone the way of those aforementioned older ages. Still, there’s plenty of Superman-fueled goodness in here for people to dig into.

The first issue is set in Clark’s earlier days when his parents reveal his alien origins to him. He’s mad about the whole thing, but still uses his abilities to help people when he can. We also find that Lex Luthor grew up in Smallville too and even encountered Clark. My favorite part? Young Clark doesn’t like the Superboy costume his mom made him, which makes perfect sense when you think of a modern teenager running around with his underwear on the outside. In the next issue, Clark heads to the future to hang out with the Legion. I wish Frank could draw a thousand issues of Legion comics, I really do, he’s perfect for them.

The last four issues follow Clark as he gets to Metropolis and working at the Daily Planet while also revealing himself to be a hero. One of the interesting things that Johns does in this book is take some of the classic elements and making them make sense in more modern times. The costume thing is part of that, but so is the fact that the Daily Planet is still a paper that exists (instead of all the ones that have closed down in the past decade). For my money, that’s one of Johns’ strongest talents, integrating old craziness and making it work even in a world where aliens come to Earth and save the day all the time. I even like what he did with Metallo and Parasite, though I’m not a fan of the former’s design this time around (you can’t like everything, right?).

So, no, this isn’t MY Superman (everyone has their own) but it still tells a great Superman story that’s not unrecognizable. One of the problems I’ve had trying to read the New 52 Superman books is that he just doesn’t seem like Superman to me. This is still on point and fits in with what I like about the character: he’s the ultimate orphan who still wants to fight for his larger family, humanity.

superman secret identitySuperman: Secret Identity (DC)
Written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by Stuart Immonen
Collects Superman: Secret Identity #1-4

Superman: Secret Identity is one of those books that everyone loves and I just never got around to reading. I actually have the last three issues in a box out in the garage, but wasn’t going to fully skip the first issue. Luckily, the library had a copy, so I dove in right after Secret Origins.

This story by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen is actually about a person named Clark Kent who’s in a version of our world. His parents named him that as a joke because everyone knows about the comic book and pop culture icon. But, after a mysterious meteor hits nearby, Clark gets Superman-like powers and starts experiencing some of the fictional hero’s ups and downs.

In a way, this book reminds me of Paul Cornell’s Action Comics story “The Black Ring” in that you find yourself learning about Superman by comparing him to the character you find yourself reading. This version of Clark follows some of the fictional version’s path, but he also finds himself living in a simpler world than the one in the comics, but still one filled with a certain amount of danger for him and his eventual family. He also deals with concepts like secret identities in ways that feel more realistic than some of the ways they are dealt with in ongoing comic book series’ that not only try to keep things interesting year in and year out, but also come from a variety of different minds and voices.

As it is, Secret Identity is a wonderful take on Superman from two very distinct, but complimentary voices in Busiek and Immonen. I was familiar with the artist’s work on books like Adventures Of Superman, but here he keeps his figures smaller and more realistic, while playing more with darkness and shadows than I remember him doing in the the mainstream superhero work. Together he and Busiek nail that real-person-dealing-with-the-unreal idea that the writer has become famous for in his comic book career.

Trade Post: Marvels, Atlas Volume 1 & Gotham By Gaslight

marvels Marvels (Marvel)
Written by Kurt Busiek, painted by Alex Ross
Collects Marvels #0-4

Going into last weekend, I pulled out a random sampling of mostly one-off trades that I wanted to make my way through this weekend. Some I had experience with, others were brand new to me. I’m splitting the experience between two posts, but here’s how the first three went over.

When I was a kid in the early-to-mid 90s Alex Ross blew everyone’s mind in comics. He might not have been the first guy to paint comic books, but he seemed like it to me at the time. His figures were so iconic and classical looking that you just couldn’t help but pour over his pages. The fact that he and the writers he worked with liked hiding pop culture easter eggs throughout the panels also helped. Kingdom Come was the first book of his I read and it blew me away. I even picked up his next work, Uncle Sam, which I didn’t understand at the time, but definitely want to dig out of my longboxes when I have access to them. I did eventually pick up the four issues of Marvels at a garage sale where a woman was selling off her son’s collection for a buck a book.

I don’t actually remember much about that original reading experience, but I can imagine it was pretty revelatory to me. I was a hardcore DC guy growing up, so my main exposure to the Marvel U was through trading cards, action figure bios, pieces in Wizard and cartoons. At the time, I was a novice when it came to Marvel’s Golden and Silver Age history which we see through the literal lens of photographer Phil Sheldon. He’s there from the beginning, when the original android Human Torch first gets shown off to a suspicious crowd and, as a NYC journalist, sees the beginnings of the superhero world and the way people react to what he labeled Marvels.

Unfortunately, the story wasn’t nearly as fresh this time around. I’ve read a ton of Marvel comics in the meantime and even a few books about the company, so the big action scenes are pretty well-worn for me even if they were presented by Ross in his heyday. I know that’s not what the book is ABOUT, but it is what drives things forward. I appreciate the man-on-the-street perspective that Busiek uses with Sheldon, especially the way his opinions of the “mutant menace” evolves, but I felt like he did all this much better in Astro City (a complaint I realized I also had when reading Busiek’s Web of Spider-Man #81). It’s interesting to see how the writer has wanted to work with specific themes throughout his career, tried them out with Marvel books, but, in my opinion at least, was really able to nail them down in his creator-owned book.

I can’t move on without talking about Ross’s art in this book. It’s as big and bold as you’d expect, though far less pastel than you might expect if you’re more of a recent fan. You can also tell, though, that this is the guy who will evolve into the Kingdom Come painter. The characters here seem a bit lighter and less dense than they do in KC, which is still one of my all time favorites and I’ve got the itch to read it again, so look for that review soon.

atlas return of the three dimensional man Atlas: Return Of The Three Dimensional Man (Marvel)
Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Gabriel Hardman, Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Ramon Rosanas & Parker
Collects Assault On New Olympus Prologue, Incredible Hercules (back-ups) #138-141, Enter The Heroic Age & Atlas #1-5

In writing about Agents Of Atlas: Dark Reign, AoA: Turf War and pretty much every other Jeff Parker comic I’ve reviewed here on the site, I’ve talked about how much I enjoy his ability to play within the Marvel sandbox while still adding something new to the characters. It’s a skill set that I’m always impressed by, especially in the days when it seems like creators at the big two don’t have as much freedom thanks to huge events and/or other external circumstances that have nothing to do with creating. Of course, it helps when you’re dealing with characters that are only really cool because you made them that way.

Parker launched AoA as a miniseries back in 2006 based off of an old issue of What If?! that posited a team of characters created back in the Atlas days of Marvel’s history actually became the Avengers. Forgotten by most, Parker dusted these characters off, gave them unique voices and personalities and, in the course of telling thrilling stories, hooked me forever. Since that first outing, the team has appeared in a few failed ongoings (I always said I’d like them to simply take the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. series-of-minis approach, but that wasn’t in the cards), minis and back-ups. This trade collects the team’s back-up features in Incredible Hercules which were going on at the same time as the Assault On Mount Olympus story. The team then got another shot at an ongoing simply titled Atlas, but it only made it the five issues collected in this volume.

Anyway, this volume continues all the elements about Parker’s team that I enjoy while always moving the individuals and the team itself forward. The thrust of the main story revolves around Triathalon and the gang figuring out why beings are trying to kill the original 3D Man and his brother (who was a part of that What If?! issue but no subsequent iterations). The book ends with the team searching for and finding a resolution that actually winds up helping everyone involved instead of going the easy route, which is a nice touch. At this point, I believe this is the last AoA book around. I still haven’t gotten my hands on the Gorilla Man or Marvel Boy minis, but I’m hoping somewhere down the line Parker gets to bring these guys back again and show the world why they’re rad.

gotham by gaslightGotham By Gaslight (DC)
Written by Brian Augustyn, drawn by Mike Mignola

Gotham By Gaslight is the kind of book I’ve heard about for years. Though not labeled as such on the cover of this original GN version, this was the first of the Elseworlds tales, stories taking iconic DC characters and putting them in different settings throughout time, space and, oftentimes, literature. Back in 1994 when I was 11, DC gave every ongoing book the Elseworlds treatment in that year’s annuals. It was a lot of fun, spawned one of my all time favorite stories and also sparked my imagination in a general way. So, as a fan of Elseworlds and artist Mike Mignola, Gotham By Gaslight was easily on my to-get list.

After working out a Sequential Swap, I wound up with a copy in hand and while I’m not sure if it deserved so much anticipation, it’s still a pretty good story. The idea here is that Bruce Wayne became Batman back in 1889. As it happens, he comes back to Gotham just in time to take on Jack the Ripper who has also relocated after committing his infamous crimes in London.

I think this book sounds cooler than it actually is. Batman versus Jack the Ripper drawn by Mike Mignola? That was a much different animal back in 1989 than it is today. The book isn’t bad by any means and dodges many of the elements that made some of those Elseworlds books annoying — like every single DCU supporting character coming into play in these alternate universes — but also doesn’t do a great job of creating a compelling mystery. The looming question over the story is, “Who is Jack the Ripper?” {If you want to completely avoid SPOILERS, skip the rest of this paragraph.} We’re offered a few potential suspects, but the actual culprit is really the only person it could have been, right? We’re thrown some red herrings like the creepy British people on the boat and this world’s version of the Joker, but neither of them come up ever again. Had those characters recurred more throughout the story, I would have questioned my original guess at who the killer was, but as it was, I had it pegged from that character’s first appearance in the comic.

Still, I enjoyed the comic and would be interested in checking out the follow-up which features art by Eduardo Barreto called Master Of The Future. While the main character of Bruce Wayne and Batman is basically the same as you’d expect as even a casual Batman fan, it’s cool to see how that character interacts with a world that reminds me a lot of the one seen in Sandman Mystery Theatre. Plus, that costume is just rad!

Superman Trade Post: Up, Up & Away, Last Son & Escape From Bizarro World

superman up up and away Superman: Up, Up & Away (DC)
Written by Kurt Busiek & Geoff Johns, drawn by Pete Woods & Renato Guedes
Collects Action Comics #837-840, Superman #650-653

I’ve said time and time again here on the blog when talking about comics, especially DC Comics, that I was a hardcore continuity guy, especially when it came to Superman. Those are the books that got me into comics and taught me the most about the Man of Steel and the greater DC Universe. So, when Infinite Crisis went down and did some vague continuity edits that didn’t seem that well conveyed and I started reading Geoff Johns’ run on Action Comics, I was confused and angrier than I should have been. I was being over-reactionary and not really fair partly because of my bias, but also because I was so dedicated to the version of that character that I was so familiar with.

Since then, I’ve done more thinking about all this than I probably should have, but I go back to what I call the Puzzle Theory Of Corporate Comic Characters. The way I see it, every single existing Superman story is a puzzle piece that a new writer can come in and use. Take Batman for example. That character can work as the ultra-dark version seen in the Christopher Nolan movies or as the fun, upbeat version seen in the Brave and the Bold cartoon. It’s the same character with different past aspects highlighted by the creators. That’s the lens through which I checked out Johns run on Action Comics when I went back and re-read it recently. He’s more a fan of the Silver Age stuff than the books I read, so that’s what he highlighted. I’m doing the first three books here and will do the final two next week, then maybe get into the New Krypton stuff which he set up and then handed off to James Robinson, Greg Rucka and Sterling Gates.

So, Infinite Crisis changed the DCU a bit by making Clark Kent Superboy when he was a kid. That was the major difference for Supes, but they also took away his powers for a year leading into One Year Later and 52. Up, Up & Away is a crossover between Action Comics and Superman with Johns and Kurt Busiek trading off issues in an effort to set up the new world without a Superman and, of course, gradually bring him back. In the year since he lost his powers helping bring down Superboy Prime, Clark has been able to enjoy the finer aspects of being a regular person: getting really good at his job, being more present with his wife and savoring his more limited senses. But of course, it’s not meant to last. While Clark had most of his bases covered with Supergirl and other heroes watching over Metropolis, he didn’t account for Lex Luthor getting out of jail and going back to his mad scientist roots, gathering villains and wielding them as weapons against Metropolis and Superman once he does return.

I can’t say for sure, but I think I really liked these books when they came out and I liked it a lot on this read through. It seemed like both writers really got a good grasp of the character and did a few things that I really enjoyed, most of which had to do with Lex Luthor. When I started reading Superman books, he was the quintessential industrial bad guy, but I’m also a big fan of mad scientist Lex. Better than that, though, the book asked a question that I had never thought of until these issues: Why didn’t Lex put his genius to use curing cancer instead of going after Superman? I tended to think of Luthor in the sense that he was portrayed in the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel series as a good man trying to defend his people from what he saw as a threat, but that ignores the irresponsible and crazy aspects of the character that are also there. Why DIDN’T he cure cancer?! Cause he’s nuts. There are also stellar moments between Lois and Clark where she explains that, while she enjoyed her time with powerless Clark Kent, she knows he needs to be Superman for the world’s sake. This is my favorite relationship in comics.

The book ends and Superman’s back in the suit with the bad guys are vanquished. He’s even helping rebuild parts of the city and handing over the signal watch to Jimmy Olsen. It’s a cool ending that doesn’t really establish the new status quo of Superman or Clark Kent, but did give a cool feel for both before moving into the separate books.

SUPERMAN LAST SON Superman: The Last Son (DC)
Written by Geoff Johns & Richard Donner, drawn by Adam Kubert
Collects Action Comics #844-846, 851 & Action Comics Annual #11

I hope there’s a point in my comic reading career when I can completely separate my reading of a trade from the knowledge I have about how that series came out in a monthly format. It’s not much of a problem anymore because I don’t read many single issues anymore so lateness has very little meaning to me. If you don’t remember or weren’t around, the books in this collection were widely spread out, had fill-ins by completely different creative teams and didn’t actually get finalized until much later when the annual came out, allowing DC’s flagship title to continue on without as much interference. It was frustrating.

There was actually a lot that frustrated me about this book the first time around. It was assumed that the lateness came from then-new DC acquisition Adam Kubert. I don’t have much tolerance artist lateness, especially if it’s an artist I’m not into. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about and therefore wasn’t very forgiving when month after month passed and the story still hadn’t wrapped up. There were also a pair of story elements that bothered me. First, the book features Superman meeting the Phantom Zone villains for presumably the first time which I thought had already happened in the previous continuity. Second, I didn’t want Superman to have a kid.

However, this time, I was able to just take it all in at once. And you know what? I liked most of the story. I did my best to ignore the lateness and my continuity bias, instead just letting myself focus on this new story and it’s pretty good, though I’m still not a great big fan of Adam Kubert’s. Aside from some poorly constructed figures when zoomed out, my main problem with the art was that it looked like the figures were being photoshopped onto painted backgrounds. When artists do that kind of thing, it looks inorganic and distracts from the implication that you’re looking at a whole broken up into many panels.

As usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. This story kicks off with a young Kryptonian landing on Earth. He’s soon followed by Zod, Ursa and Non (better known as the bad guys from Superman II) who are actually using their son as a tether allowing them to escape the Negative Zone. Now Superman has to fight for the very survival of his adoptive planet and his new foster son in the face of overwhelming odds.

I dug the ins and outs of this story from the explanation of how Lor-Zod was conceived to Mon-El’s appearance and the Bizarro fight to the people Superman turns to for help in defeating his enemies. My only real problems this time around were still related to other comics, but not the ones I read as a kid, but instead Up, Up & Away. Somehow Clark Kent went from a confident guy wearing a Smallville jacket to a suit and tie-wearing doofus who felt the need to act as such to hide his secret identity. Doesn’t that seem weird? Wouldn’t that kind of big character change cause a lot of people to wonder what’s going on? However, as its own thing and the beginning of Johns’ solo run (he recently said on Kevin Smith’s Fat Man On Batman podcast that he basically hammered out the beats with his one-time boss Richard Donner and then scripted it himself), it works a lot better than it did as a monthly comic. One of the major negatives at the time was that Lor-Zod wound up spending months and months with Clark and Lois, basically spinning his wheels until everyone got their stuff together and gave him the proper send off which wound up being really emotional and well done.

superman escape from bizarro world Superman: Escape From Bizarro World (DC)
Written by Geoff Johns & Richard Donner, drawn by Eric Powell
Collects Action Comics #855-857, Superman #140, DC Comics Presents #71 & The Man of Steel #5

While I might want to forget some elements of the previous books, I have only good memories and experiences with Escape From Bizarro World, which is a three issue story drawn by The Goon‘s Eric Powell. While working at Wizard, I was given the assignment of interviewing Powell for a sketchbook feature. You can actually see the sketches in the intro written by Brian K. Vaughan, but the amazing Darkseid one he did wasn’t included because he has nothing to do with the story. That image of Darkseid has become second only to Jack Kirby’s in my mind for iconic interpretations of the character. Powell was also a super nice guy to interview. He had a death in the family at the time and still took the time to help me with the article, something I don’t know if I could have focused on in his shoes. Good guy that Powell.

This story completely plays to Powell’s strengths as it takes place mostly on a planet that Bizarro smashed together and happens to be under a blue sun which has given him “Bizarro Vision,” the ability to create Bizarro clones. The downside? They hate him. Bizarro needs advice so he kidnaps Jonathan Kent which eventually brings Supes to the planet. Superman actually wants to just get out of there and leave Biz to his problems, but his dad is there to play moral compass and help the two figure out a way to change the status quo. It’s a great series of moments, but doesn’t hold a candle to the few scenes of Superman’s dad getting his son’s powers and understanding for a little while what that’s like. Better yet? The gift Bizarro gave him at the end. Man, that gave me a little lump in my throat!

It’s a quick story with all kinds of goodness on both ends of the comic spectrum. Johns and Donner weaved a wonderful story that ranks up there with some of my favorites. At the same time, Powell not only gets to draw backwards zombie-ish versions of the Justice League and Superman’s supporting cast, but also does a Superman so iconic I almost can’t stand that there’s only three issues.

To beef up the trade, DC did something pretty fun by including three different Bizarro issues from years’ past. Better than just including some basic stuff, though, they actually got Johns to pick issues that inspired him when writing the character. The writer even writes mini essays about why he included each issue which is pretty great.  So, instead of reprinting Bizarro’s first appearance, he went with the one where Bizarro and Bizarro Lois Lane have a kid who’s normal and therefore a weirdo on their planet. This plays up on the themes of alienation that Johns used throughout all of his Superman stories.

Alright, I want to say one more thing while on the subject of how these books are collected. I understand it makes sense to collect the books by artist, but there are a few issues here and there from Johns’ run that weren’t collected in these books. I don’t have the exact issue numbers on hand, but I know there was a Toyman issue that got passed over for collection. I’m sure I’m not the only one to suggest this, but it would be nice to have a Geoff Johns Action Comics Omnibus. They’ve done that with his Teen Titans and Flash runs, so maybe we’re not far off from that with Superman.

The Box: Mortal Kombat Battlewave #4, Web Of Spider-Man #81 & Deathwatch 2000 Earth 4 #2

As I explained last week, my pal Jesse bought me a longbox packed with comics, many of which had five or six copies. I put what I had in alphabetical order, put them in my sliding-top coffee table and I’ll reach in, pull out comics at random and give them a read. Sometimes I discover a gem, sometimes, not so much.

First up, I read Mortal Kombat: BattleWave #4 from Malibu, which seems to have been purchased by Marvel at this point (1995). This comic was written by Charles Marshall and drawn by Patrick Rolo and it was surprisingly one of the best of the box so far. I figured I would be completely lost because I only ever rented Mortal Kombat games in the past. But, I actually found myself pretty interested in what’s going on.

I don’t know why the different people are fighting on their particular sides, but you’ve got Johnny Cage and Jax fighting Smoke and Jade on a crashing airplane. This is a tricky thing to write and some of the artwork is a little out of control, but I think it was handled really well. There’s other stuff I didn’t necesarrily get and a back-up story about a cat-man fighting Goro, but I was actually pretty intrigued by the world that Marshall was working with here. Iconic characters doing cool things in such a way that a new reader can understand is not a terrible thing.

Also, I dug Rolo’s art. I don’t I’m familiar with his work, but it’s got an almost cartoony, exaggerated nature that never looks too cartoony or exaggerated. In other words, I wouldn’t be upset if I found more MK comics by these guys in The Box. Bonus piece of info: Marvel editor Mark Paniccia edited this comic!

I had less fun reading Marvel’s Web Of Spider-Man #81 written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Steve Butler. The story follows two brothers, one who decides to be a good person and goes to school while the other decides to become the oh-so-90s villain Bloodshed. It’s not a bad story, but it’s one I’ve read before. Actually, it’s one I’ve read from Busiek before in the pages of Astro City: Dark Ages Books 1 and 2 which set several miniseries’ worth of comics around this idea. So, seeing it done all in a compressed format with different characters just feels a little repetitive.

Mind you, this is not a slam against this comic. I’ve come to realize that there are certain kinds of stories you can read done plenty of different ways and others that you don’t. I feel like I read this idea done really well by the writer already and just didn’t feel the need to go through it again.

I will note that Butler, an artist I’m not very familiar with, did a great jon in the issue. His Spidey looks iconic, his characters bold (when they’re supposed to be) and he gets to work with several great facial expressions that he nails.

I do admit, there is a part of me that misses villains like Bloodshed. His motivations are the same as villains today, but that look is insane. He’s basically got enhanced strength and…spikes as well as a pink ponytail for some reason. In reality, if you saw this guy, you’d be torn between quivering in terror and snickering.

Lastly, I read Deathwatch 2000 Earth 4 #2 from Continuity Comics. I think that’s the title at least, I honestly can’t tell. I remember having a few Continuity books from various grab bags as a kid and never knowing what the hell was going on. That continues to be the case with this issue written by Neal Adams and Paul Stone with art by Aron Weisenfeld. Honestly, I can not tell you what happened. There’s one group of super people all with silly names like Urth and Fyre fighting another group and then a third shows up at some point.

There are some explanations along the way but they just wind up confusing more. I’m not the biggest fan of those basic information recap pages, like the ones that Marvel did in the mid-2000s, but it would have been immensely helpful in these comics, even more so considering these are brand new comics from a presumably brand new comic company. I didn’t do any research (yet) on Continuity or what was going on because I like to go in fresh, but I probably should have. The art doesn’t help matters any either. This was in the middle of the 90s heyday where nothing comes in a grid and all the panel lines look like they’ve been singed. It’s like mental color overload with stuff you’re not given enough information to care about. I think it’s also environmental, which makes it feel like a more “extreme” version Captain Planet, which I do not want to read.

Oh, I forgot to mention, this book was polybagged AND came with a trading card. Anyone want to trade for Firebat?

The Box: Defenders #10, Amazing Spider-Man #351 & Archer And Armsstrong #17

For my birthday, my pal Jesse sent me a long box full of comics from a company called Cardsone that does all kinds of bulk sales. I highly recommend checking out their site and also perusing the catalog which has some amazingly weird stuff in it. The box was packed to the gills and I felt bad for the UPS guy who had to carry it all the way to my door, but got over that pretty quickly and dove right in. Flipping through the box, I quickly realized that the majority of the books in the box were doubles, triples and whathaveyou. That’s probably a good thing because I don’t think my wife would me okay with me storing yet another long box in the house.

Anyway, my first order of business was to alphabetize everything and then go through and pull out one each of the books which was about a quarter of the contents. There were a lot of CrossGen books as well as some Valiant and Comico and a few Marvel and DC comics. With everything in order, I put them in a stack in my table (it’s got a sliding top, so you can actually put things inside of it) and have been reaching in and pulling comics out at random. I will be reviewing them in threes here on the blog moving forward, so let’s have fun with it.

I actually grabbed The Defenders #10 (2001) by Kurt Busiek, Eric Stephenson and Erik Larsen first because I remember buying the first issue when it came out. Not sure why I didn’t continue reading, but in the many years between then and now I’ve come to greatly appreciate Busiek and Larsen as creators in their own right, so then working together should be rad, right?

Yeah, it pretty much is. I’ll admit to feeling a little lost, but that’s to be expected when reading the tenth issue in a series of comics, I think. But there are enough flashbacks to get you caught up. In addition to the rad art by Larsen who gets to draw not only the Defenders, but also M.O.D.O.K. and an army of supervillains that includes Venom, Rhino, Sandman and more. It’s a fantastic example of his powers and Busiek’s ability to work so well within the world of continuity-heavy comics. Both these guys are fantastic and do an excellent job in this book. It makes me want to go and get the rest of the issues so I can enjoy this one all the more.

Up next was The Amazing Spider-Man #351 (1991) written by David Micheline and drawn by Mark Bagley. If the blurb inside the issue is to be believe, this was Bagley’s first issue as the regular ASM penciler, which is pretty cool. Man, that guy was born to draw Spider-Man, wasn’t he? He’s also no slouch rendering Nova and the Tri-Sentinel who gust star in this particular issue.

I’ve gone on record as saying I’m not the world’s biggest Spidey fan. I loved his cartoon, some of the video games and the first movie, but I’ve never really been able to sink my teeth into the comics. I don’t know what it is, but I was able to jump in and enjoy this comic. I think that’s partially because it stars Nova, a character I’ve grown to appreciate both in my own reading of books like Annihilation and also just be being friends with Rich Rider’s number one fan Ben Morse. Plus, like I said, Bagley’s art is so good and accessible that it’s hard to feel lost. He makes everyone look and feel familiar, even with characters like the Tri-Sentinel who I had never seen before.

Apparently Spidey and this thing had beef in a previous issue, but Web Head had the power of Captain Universe to help him defeat the mechanical menace. He and Nova stumble upon this while trying to find out where some high tech weapons are coming from.

Overall, the issue’s pretty fun. You’ve got great banter between Spidey and Nova, some static between Mary Jane and Peter and a big fight with a big ol’ machine. Can’t go wrong with that.

I did not enjoy Archer & Armstrong #17 (1993) by Mike Baron and Mike Vosburg nearly as much as the other two issues, however. I actually know more people who used to work at Valiant than characters in their comics (many Valiant folks moved to Wizard when the former closed up shop). I have one issue of this book in my collection where a dude is hitting another dude in front of a slot machine I think (okay, I looked it up and oddly enough it’s the issue before this one, #16) but never actually read it.

The problem with this issue isn’t necessarily in the story or the art, which kind of looks like it was colored with colored pencils, but the fact that absolutely no attempt is made to explain who these characters are. They hint that Archer (or maybe Armstrong, who knows?) is some kind of ancient indestructible fighter guy…or something. I could look it up on Wiki and maybe some day I will, but I honestly don’t care that much. If you’re writing a book like Spider-Man or Batman where the character is out there in the consciousness, then you can get away without overtly explaining who your leads are, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. When you’re only in your second year of publishing a pair of characters you just made up? Might be a good idea to throw in some kind of explanation page or even one of those text boxes in the front that explain the basic concept. You know, something like: “Sent from a dying world, an alien boy grew up on Earth to gain amazing powers under its yellow sun. Now he fights for truth, justice and the American way as Superman!” Something like that. Based solely on this one issue, I’m not surprised that the big V didn’t work out so well.

Trade Post: Astro City The Dark Age 2

ASTRO CITY: THE DARK AGE 2 (Wildstorm/DC)
Written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by Brent Anderson
Collects Astro City The Dark Ages Book Three & Four #1-4

I had problems with Astro City: The Dark Age 1. As I mentioned in my review of the earlier AC volume Tarnished Angel, I didn’t like constant back and forth nature of the thought boxes. I thought it was cheesy and annoying, a lot like some of the more schmaltzy Superman/Batman issues written by Jeph Loeb. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember much more than that when reading the second volume while on vacation last week. See, even though I didn’t have fond memories of the first book, I know that Kurt Busiek is one of the more solid writers around and that I want to learn more about the world of Astro City, so I’m always interested in reading more about it.

Even without refreshing my memory, I did remember that the book focused on a pair of non-superpowered brothers, one who went down the criminal path, the other who was a cop. They’re both obsessed with finding the man who killed their parents. That’s pretty much what the whole second book focuses on, now that the brothers have enough experience, technology and firepower to actually go after him. While that’s going on, we also get to see the Silver Agent appear a pair of times, several heroes from the 80s and no shortage of superhero action all of which leads to one focal point that makes for a pretty great battle.

I really liked how subtly Busiek handled the 80s comic trope of grim and gritty. I actually didn’t even think about it at first. He introduced the story as being set in the 80s and then eventually showed that a few heroes had gotten a little more violent. It wasn’t like in the first few panels he showed a Batman-like character snapping a bad guy’s neck, which is about as subtle as some other similar references. The metaphor also worked for the brothers who had gotten more and more grim as the story progressed.

Dark Age 2 probably wouldn’t be the best Astro City book to pick up if you’d never read anything, but I bet you could probably enjoy it. There’s enough familiar territory for superhero fans to understand the basics right off the bat. There’s also the question of Anderson’s art, which really turns some people off. It’s not the crispest art in the world, but I don’t have any problems with it. While figures can be muddy at times, he kills it on the faces, so it balances out for me. Oh, by the way, there’s a reveal at the end of this book, which closes out the Dark Age storyline altogether as far as I know, that explains away the dialog boxes that bugged me in the first collection. I guess this is a SPOILER of sorts, so skip along if you want nothing revealed. We find out at the end that the narration was actually being done by the brothers in modern times to a writer, which was such an obvious explanation I was disappointed in myself for not thinking about it. It’s actually a pretty cool trick that Busiek played by making long time comic book fans think one thing about the boxes and then revealing them to be something else. It’s a trick that can only really be pulled in this format and it was fun.

Overall, I really liked this collection and it made me want to read the first book again, so that’s a pretty good post-reading experience, right? It also made me want to snatch up the rest of the AC books I don’t have yet. I think it’s time to compare what’s on my shelf and in the longboxes to see what I do and don’t have. I love what Busiek’s done with this world and can’t wait to see what he does with it moving forward.

Trade Post: Gen 13 Road Trip, Space Usagi & JLA/Avengers

GEN 13 VOLUME 2: ROAD TRIP (WildStorm)
Written by Gail Simone, drawn by Alvin Lee, Carlo Barberi, Sunny Lee and Kevin West
Collects Gen 13 (current series) #7-13
I’ve had a long and tumultuous history with Gen 13. I first read about them in Wizard in the 90s and got very interested. I picked up an issue at the shop which immediately hooked me and I set out to collect every Gen13 appearance from there on out. This might sound odd to some people, but Gen 13 was basically my Teen Titans or New X-Men because they were young, fresh characters who also happened to be super powered beings with what seemed like the whole world against them. What teenager couldn’t relate? Anyway, I read that book through it’s pretty terrible completion and then the completely awful Chris Claremont relaunch. So, when the whole WorldStorm thing happened in the WildStorm universe, I was curious but cautious to see what Simone’s plans were for Gen13. Then the book hit and I was disappointed once again. The kids were some kind of super powered sex proxies. Or something. I read one issue and was out.

But, I’m one for second chances, so when I saw the potential to read this second volume, I figured what the heck. Road Trip jumps around showing the kids still getting to know each other while facing bad guys and what not. Many of the previous plot points are retread like Sarah Rainmaker being a lesbian and Cat being a nerd who now has a hot body. Eventually it’s explained that the Gen13 kids are anomalies in the universe because of Captain Atom Armageddon and WorldStorm. In the end, as a fan, I appreciate that explanation for why they seem so vastly different compared to say the Authority whose history seemed exactly the same before and after, but in the end there wasn’t enough of interest here to keep me really interested. It’s not a bad book if you’re new to Gen 13, but if you’re a fan I would imagine it’s like watching a remake which just keeps reminding you how much you want to go back and rewatch the original. Maybe when I go home in a few weeks, I’ll bring a stack of Gen 13 comics back with me.

SPACE USAGI (Dark Horse)
Written and drawn by Stan Sakai
Collects Space Usagi: Warrior #1-3, Space Usagi: Death And Honor #1-3, Space Usagi: White Star Rising #1-3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #47 and Usagi Yojimbo Color Special #3
I’ve never read an Usagi Yojimbo comic before. Not that I haven’t wanted to, it just seems like a difficult comic to just jump into, even though I’ve heard good things. My biggest exposure to the character was the highly coveted Usagi figure in the Ninja Turtles toy line that I didn’t get my hands on until last summer’s yard sale season kicked off. I figured this far-flung future sci-fi comic would be a pretty easy entry so gave it a shot.

Overall, it’s a pretty good book. The first story follows Usagi as his king is killed and he has to keep the prince safe while fighting all kinds of baddies. The second story is the weakest because it’s got way too many Star Wars references. Now, I know that chunks of Star Wars were taken from the classic hero story, but you’ve got the good guys teaming up with a smuggler in a crummy ship who then infiltrate the bad guy’s headquarters. There’s even a scene with the whole group in a room trying to get information until they’re surprised by relief. The third story was also pretty good and threw a good number of curveballs that I wasn’t expecting. My favorite story is the one which brings the original Usagi to the far future for a few minutes. It’s just a fun little thing that put a smile on my face.

Aside from the Star Wars riffs, I found these stories to be of a pretty great quality that kept my interested throughout. Sakai’s art looks deceptively simple at times, but turns out to be really intricate. He’s go a great mix of cartooning and comic art that makes every panel fun to stare at. Anyone know a good place to start with the regular Usagi book aside from the beginning, of course?

JLA/AVENGERS (DC & Marvel)
Written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by George Perez
Collects JLA/Avengers #1-4
It’s kind of crazy to think about how much DC and Marvel played together throughout the 90s. There was DC vs. Marvel, Amalgam, All Access and then a series of one- and two-shots bringing Captain America and Batman, Green Lantern and Silver Surfer and Darkseid and Galactus together. There’s been a pretty long dry spell lately, but the last great meeting of the two gigantic comic book minds was the long-awaited and highly anticipated JLA/Avengers from 2003 and 2004. But when it hit, I was definitely one of the people with a huge question mark hanging over my head. At the time, I was in college and only read comics whenever I went home which was about every 3 or 4 months. I think this book ended up coming out late which meant that I was reading them even further apart.

But, sitting down and reading it all in a few sittings was a joy. Yes, it’s a complex story. There’s big cosmic people playing games that effect both universes and even combine them for a time. As someone who reads through trades and comics pretty quickly, I felt like this book really gave me my money’s worth both in terms of the epic story and also in Perez’s artwork which is fantastic. I think he’s one of the few (only?) classic artists who keeps getting better. I loved his stuff in Legion Of Three Worlds last year.

Anyway, Busiek’s able to combine huge, sweeping and well choreographed fight scenes with smaller geek out moments like The Thing showing up in the Batcave or the Captain Marvels fighting alongside each other. If you’ve got a favorite Avenger or Leaguer they most likely show up in the book either throughout or during the crazy time warping battle at the end (what up Guy Gardner Warrior?!). While reading through that last issue I was struck by how complicated the script must have been and how easy Perez made it seem. I don’t remember a single time when I couldn’t keep up with what was happening on the page (at least visually, like I said, the story gets pretty dense). There’s also some fun stuff in the third issue in which the two teams seem to have been having a JLA/JSA Earth-1/Earth-2 relationship with the Avengers since the beginning. Of course, something’s not right. JLA/Avengers isn’t just for diehard fans of either series, but I wouldn’t recommend if for a complete newbie. Getting some of the history under your belt might be a good idea before diving into this bad boy, which makes sense considering how long it took to get from the page to the fans’ hands.