COUNTDOWN TO SENILITY (part II)
PART 2. THE HONORARY MENTION LIST
By John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL
Or check out more insane ramblings by John's twisted alter ego, Doc Nebula, at http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html
Well, here we go. If I left out your favorite superhero comics issue or story in Part 1, maybe I'll redeem myself here. Let's find out:
1. Moore/Totleben SWAMP THING (Adam Strange 2 parter)
2. Baron/Guice FLASH
3. Bates/Heck FLASH
4. Baron/Rude NEXUS
5. McCloud's ZOT!
6. Englehart/Staton GREEN LANTERN
7. Busiek/Heck Green Lantern Corps back up "Burdens"
8. Bates/Swan Superman stuff
9. "Joker's Five Way Revenge" O'Neil & Adams
10. Evanier & Spiegle's CROSSFIRE
11. A buncha Moore stuff - a Vigilante two parter, some good GLC back up stuff, a good Superman Annual with Dave Gibbons, and yes, okay, dammit, WATCHMEN, there, now shut up
12. Any Legion of Superheroes story not by Paul Levitz, especially if by Cary Bates & Dave Cockrum
13. Any reprint in a DC 100 Page Super Spectacular
14. GIVE ME LIBERTY by Frank Miller & Dave Gibbons
15. IRON FIST by Claremont & Byrne
16. FLASH by William Moessner-Loebs
17. SUICIDE SQUAD by Ostrander and McDonnell
18. STAR BRAND by Jim Shooter and John Romita, Jr.
19. The Roger Stern SPIDER-MAN stuff, in both AMAZING and PETER PARKER
20. Stern's run on HULK
21. Peter David's ELECTRO/SIN EATER three parter, and some of his HULK stuff
22. Englehart's COYOTE
23. Busiek's LIBERTY PROJECT
24. Avengers "Ultron Unleashed", Busiek/Perez
25. STRIKE! By Chuck Dixon and, I think, Tom Lyle
26. Englehart's SUPERVILLAIN TEAM UP, CAPTAIN MARVEL & DEFENDERS
27. Starlin's CAPTAIN MARVEL, but not DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL
28. Dave Stevens' THE ROCKETEER
29. A scattered few Amalgam titles: SUPER SOLDIER, SPIDER-BOY, MAGNETO AND THE MAGNETIC MEN, IRON LANTERN.
Yeah, okay. Still no DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, still no this, still no that, yaddity yaddity, am I nuts, what's wrong with me, Jesus, how could I leave out YOUR FAVORITE COMIC IN THE WORLD? And... Jim Shooter's STAR BRAND? What the hell? And I list a lousy Kurt Busiek GLC back up and LIBERTY PROJECT and that Ultron story, and don't mention ASTRO CITY or MARVELS? Shit, I don't even mention CEREBUS THE AARDVARK. Or anything from Image. What kind of comics fan AM I, to ignore those two extremes?
Clearly, I'm off my meds.
Or just, you know, deeply weird.
Again, as in Part 1, I'm going to assume that some of this is self-evident. Virtually anything by Alan Moore on the list is going to get very little argument, other than from people who think every BEST COMICS list should be comprised entirely of stuff by Moore, so what the hell am I doing lumping so much of his stuff into an Honorary Mention list, including WATCHMEN? Screw ya. Most people who have had the pleasure of reading the Mike Baron/Steve Rude NEXUS aren't going to debate me giving it a positive plug, and those who haven't read it can just go sit out in the garage and read that stack of old CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST comics behind the paint cans. Scott McCloud's ZOT! is, like Raymond, one of those things everybody loves. (I myself have never seen so much as a minute of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. When CBS produces a spin off series called EVERYBODY BEATS THE CRAP OUT OF RAYMOND WITH CROWBARS, I promise to watch, though.) I'll countenance no arguments to anything by Englehart on the list, since I showed the great good sense to leave off nearly all his post Silver Age stuff, and even some of his Silver Age material for DC, like STARFIRE and one really weird issue of KAMANDI. Still... okay, never mind. This will go faster if I do it this way:
- Moore/Totleben SWAMP THING (Adam Strange 2 parter)
Please. It's Alan Moore. While I found SWAMP THING got somewhat disappointing with the start of the American Gothic extended story frame, and the Totleben art never helped much, nonetheless, well, it's Alan Moore. Only Moore could take a brief cameo appearance of Lex Luthor and give us the most chilling rendition of the soon-to-be-retconned-into-oblivion renegade scientific genius Superman villain in DC history. "You don't know from invulnerable. I know from invulnerable. This plant thing... it isn't it." And the Adam Strange two parter is simply brilliant from start to finish, and more than makes up for all the stupid pretentious "oh let's print the art sideways and do everything as captions in a weird font" crap Moore put us through later on in the run.
- Baron/Guice FLASH
In one of the few things he ever wrote well other than NEXUS (please, don't get me started on SONIC DISRUPTORS) Mike Baron portrayed Wally West's first few adventures in the crimson cowl of his dead mentor with a rather daffy and seductive charm. The Butch Guice art looked bulky, slow, and clumsy, but would immediately improve retrospectively once the truly dreadful Greg LaRoque took over the pencilling chores. Baron, however, must be credited with the seemingly obvious, but actually brilliant, insight, that if you're going to create credible villains for a superspeedster, they'd better have superspeed too. Baron also portrayed Wally West as one of the most original superhero characters in the history of comic books; a basically decent guy who was, nonetheless, clearly enslaved by his gonads, who fell "in love", and then jumped in bed, with every good looking woman who wandered across his path and gave him a second glance... including one who was, at the time they met, still married to a supervillain. Wally remained basically a philanderer for years, not only under Baron, but also under his successor, the even more talented William Moessner-Loebs. It was only when the relatively stodgy Mark Waid took over the book much later that Wally was forcibly 'grown up' and settled down with one particular complete airhead of a girlfriend in a conventional monogamous relationship, making him pretty much a cookie cutter character like everyone else. (Waid also dumped the Pied Piper's homosexuality like it was burning his fingers, preferring to focus on the more morally positive values of a standard superhero adventure series, like, you know, confronting people whose behavior you don't like and beating the crap out of them.) However, Baron really set the quirky, controversial standard that made FLASH one of DC's most interesting post Crisis series for quite a long time.
- Bates/Heck FLASH
Cary Bates is one of the great unsung heroes, and extraordinary scripters, of DC's late Silver Age. A consummately skilled and enormously talented writer, Bates spent the vast majority of his career doing throwaway work that most people forgot as soon as they finished reading it, on characters like the classic Superman and the Barry Allen Flash, who were both so overwhelmingly powerful that it was simply impossible to write them interestingly in any sort of straightforward, direct confrontation. Instead, Bates' plots had to center around interesting plot devices and, especially in the case of the Flash, coming up with yet more bizarre but fascinating methods for the Fastest Man Alive to apply his super-velocity and absolute control over his own molecular structure to the chore of keeping Central City safe. Saddled with a Rogues Gallery of colorful but clueless idiots, nearly all of whom had been designed by John Broome and Gardner Fox to make use of unlikely, one gimmick super-weaponry that any SMART superspeedster would have been able to strip away from the bad guy before he could even get it out, much less point it and aim it, Bates nevertheless managed to turn in years of entertaining stories.
Okay, okay, the knowledgeable comics fan admits wearily, fine, you like Cary Bates, and he wrote a huge amount of stuff for DC in the mid to late Silver Age, fine, we won't argue... but... DON HECK? C'mon. The guy Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison once agreed was the worst artist in comics? The guy who drew Quicksilver running at superspeed basically by scribbling all over him? The guy everybody hates to see take over their favorite comic? The one who designed that terrible costume for Imus Champion way back in like AVENGERS #103? Don HECK? You gotta be kidding.
I acknowledge that Don Heck, like several other artists who resolutely refuse to draw like Jack Kirby draws, gets a terrible rap from the average comics fan. However, I am not the average comics fan, and I say, if you're not capable of looking at Don Heck's amazingly versatile, utterly beautiful, wonderfully detailed and atmospheric art and at least appreciating the consummate skill and mastery of the visual form that informs every line Heck draws, if not actually liking what you see, well, you can go soak your head.
I love Don Heck's art work. I admit, it's something of an acquired taste, although having said that, I'll also say that I loved Heck's artwork from the moment I first saw it, in a MARVEL TRIPLE ACTION reprint of AVENGERS #22, I believe. Of course, Heck was drawing Hawkeye the Archer in that and subsequent issues, and Hawkeye is a character Heck designed and may even have created, and at the very least, is one who emphasizes the strengths Heck brings to the art form... a capacity to draw very solid, seemingly three dimensional images that appear to have weight and presence, to draw costumes that seem to be composed of actual cloth and solid, substantial material, to draw real artifacts with absolute, immediately recognizable authenticity, to give characters distinct facial features and individual body languages, to convey even relatively subtle shades and nuances of emotion through facial expression and stance, and last but not least, to draw perhaps the most realistic and accurate human anatomy of any superhero artist.
That the combination of all of these things often appears to be heavy, clumsy, bulky, slow, awkward, and various other adjectives that all mean basically the same thing, is indicative of the undeniable fact that Heck's art style, which was perfected over a generation of doing beautifully realistic looking work in newspaper comic strips, is often inappropriate to the exaggerated, streamlined, special effects laden, graphically slick genre of superhero comics. Heck can draw virtually anything real, human, animal, or artifact, from any angle, in any sort of motion, in full realistic detail, so that it is instantly recognizable, but it must be admitted, when he tries to draw things that aren't real and that he has little or no visual reference for, his success is inconsistent. I happen to like the way he designs fantastic advanced technological artifacts and I find his methods of drawing focused energy beams to be often charming; however, he does not draw humanoid figures doing inhuman things in a very visually exciting way. People picking up large, heavy objects, people throwing other people through walls, people running at superspeed, and, especially, people with wings flying through the air, look anything from clumsy to downright ludicrous when Heck tries to draw them.
Given the above, you'd think I'd find Heck's artwork for a few years over Cary Bates scripting on FLASH to be awful, but, well, only if you hadn't read much FLASH of that time period. When Carmine Infantino left the book back in the late 60s, it was promptly assigned to Irv Novick, who stayed the regular penciller on the book for several years, only to be replaced for another several year stint by Ross Andru. Say what you will about Heck; after nearly ten years of either Novick's uninspired, astonishingly dull, completely astylistic hackwork, or Andu's contrived, distorted, triangle-based layouts and renderings, Donny Boy was beyond welcome. And while Heck's visual interpretation of the Flash was, regrettably, somewhat clumsy and very slow looking, no one ever drew a better Barry Allen, and the Flash's Rogue's Gallery, most of whom were designed by Carmine Infantino and who wear real, actual clothing rather than skintight spandex, looked positively great under Heck. Even better, for the first time in almost ten years, the various women in FLASH suddenly became drop dead gorgeous; when Fiona Webb, who briefly became Barry's second wife shortly before Crisis, was introduced after Iris Allen was killed, she was the most visually appealing piece of eye candy in comics of that time outside Steve Rude's Sundra Peale or Dave Stevens' Betty.
When Heck finally left the series, it was to a much lauded and anticipated return by Carmine Infantino. Unfortunately, in the years Carmine had been off the book, he had simplified and streamlined his already cartoony style to a point where, although the Flash once more looked blindingly fast as he raced across the landscape, I honestly couldn't care. To my mind, it only under Heck that Bates' always clever and quirky FLASH scripts really reached their true potential.
- 'any reprint in any DC 100 Page Super Spectacular" Honorary Mention-
DC really made out like bandits in the Golden Age reprint deal. I mean, they got, in addition to like, you know, Batman and Superman, truly cool stuff like all those old guys from the JSA with pretty good old Alex Toth, Joe Kubert, Lee Moder, Carmine Infantino, and Murphy Anderson artwork, and really goofy plots that are still a lot of fun to read these days. Plus they had all those pretty cool Fawcett and Quality superguys like Doll Man and the Ray and Kid Eternity and like that, and they even somehow wound up with the Shazam! stuff. Sure, the occasional wank like Super-Chief somehow infiltrated the gang, but Christ! Take a look at the Golden Age reprints Marvel was stuck with. Brain damaged (if beautifully drawn) Sub Mariner reprints, where Namor fights Shark People from Space. Truly difficult to look at Carl Burgos Human Torch crud. Hyperactive Lee-Kirby nonsense featuring maniacal but deeply patriotic serial killer Captain America. And... monster stories. Lots o' monster stories. Marvel never even dared bring out the truly trippy stuff they could have reprinted from back then, like the Fin and the Golden Age Vision and the Blazing Skull and the Patriot (not to mention, like, the Thin Man, who could make himself flat, oh, yay!) because where Doll Man and the Ray and even Uncle Sam stories were, y'know, kind of dopey and fun, all this old Timely stuff was just... kah-weird. Even Roy Thomas didn't want to use any of these guys, except at the end of the Kree Skrull War, and I still think he meant to imply pretty clearly with that story that they were all fictional, too. (He changed his mind much later when he did a pretty decent - for Roy, I mean - latter day INVADERS mini series, but at the end of the Kree Skrull War, I'm pretty sure all those lame-os were meant to be fictional.)
- Baron/Rude NEXUS
What do you want? Mike Baron has never done better work than on this completely unique comics series, and Steve Rude's artwork is simply so mind bogglingly beautiful after, oh, his third issue, that there's virtually no comparison between this artwork and anything done by any other artist in superhero comics. If you've read it, you know; if you haven't, go read it.
Again, a no brainer. Like the New York Yankees, the Who, or Morgan Freeman, everybody loves ZOT! The entire first series, in color, concerns the adventures of a couple of 'normal' kids from our 'normal' reality, catapulted into an unlikely alternate universe where it is apparently always the 1965 predicted by optimistic futurists of the 30s and 40s, and where teenage science hero Zachary Paleozogt, otherwise known as Zot!, fights a perpetually thrilling, but never too grim or gritty, battle against the extremely colorful and visually interesting forces of evil. Being heretical, I myself find the later black & white series, which reverses things and has Zot get trapped for a period in the 'real' world, to be much more effective and moving, but still, whether he's punching out the Blotch or helping a heartwrenchingly brave girl named Brandy fly around an otherwise empty gym, Zot is a character worthy of mention in any compilation of the Best Superhero Stories of All Time.
McCloud's artwork has been extensively praised elsewhere, and more articulately than I could, but I'll also offer another heretical note by stating that I like his Kirby inspired stuff on DESTROY! far more than I like the generally manga influenced stuff we see on ZOT!.
- Englehart/Staton GREEN LANTERN
For one brief, shining moment, just prior to the Crisis, Green Lantern Hal Jordan abruptly became the best written superhero at DC Comics. It only lasted about seven issues; after Crisis, some genius decided to turn Hal's book into GREEN LANTERN CORPS and diffuse the focus that should have been his, under the best writer/artist team he'd ever had, amongst a bunch of hopeless goobers like a giant chipmunk and eternally grouchy space-thing who looked like a refugee from D.R. & QUINCH. Morally queasy storylines involving the forced physical maturity of jailbait alien hotties, as well as some straight out boring and aimless plotlines, led to some obviously desperate editorial flailing and finally, cancellation. But before all that, for maybe half a year, Hal Jordan suddenly got treated with the respect he deserved. Even without the ring (for about half these issues, John Stewart is Earth's Green Lantern, because Hal has resigned to be with Carol Ferris) Hal is simply an astonishingly stalwart, valiant, competent, and heroic figure, facing off against the frighteningly powerful and amorally aggressive Predator with nothing but his bare fists and some mundane equipment, and battling him to a near draw. Englehart's exploration of the growing relationship between John Stewart and Katma Tui is also a delight, and all told, these issues stand out as the apex for the entire GREEN LANTERN concept.
If I make little mention of the Joe Staton art, it's not meant to in any way seem disrespectful. Staton's work on this book was always beautiful, and in this brief run up to and including issue #100, and well beyond, he turns in some of his finest work ever.
- Englehart/Rogers MR. MIRACLE.
For four, maybe five issues, MR. MIRACLE suddenly became a real character, in this 'never acknowledged as part of actual continuity' series revival in the mid 70s. Englehart stopped writing it and Gerber & Golden took over for several more issues that many people like as much or better than the Englehart/Rogers ones, but to me, those issues never quite came up to the Steve/Marshall standard. Under Englehart, MR. MIRACLE and his vastly varied supporting cast came alive in a way no one has ever matched, and Rogers continued his tradition of giving Englehart his absolute best work.
- Busiek/Heck Green Lantern Corps back up "Burdens"
Kurt Busiek is very fond of this story, because it's the only place he ever got to work with Don Heck. (Busiek is a long way from perfect as either a pro or a human being, but he recognizes class and talent when he sees it, and he understands how lucky he was to work with Heck on anything.) In terms of a story, this short, wonderfully written, extremely concise SF parable hits with an impact that nothing else by Busiek has ever managed to deliver. Heck's artwork is jaw droppingly beautiful, too, as he effortlessly shows us the visually encapsulated career of an alien Green Lantern aging decades over the course of a few panels of unrelated, intricate, and always visually interesting, superfeats. While I myself am not sure I agree with the eventual philosophical message of the story, I'm not sure I don't, either, which is a triumph for the writing. Superhero comics, especially the Green Lantern Corps, rarely manage to so deftly portray such a complex moral and ethical issue. The story is printed in the back of a truly wretched Len Wein GREEN LANTERN tale, nicely drawn by Dave Gibbons.
- Bates/Swan Superman stuff
Take everything I said about the Bates/Heck FLASH and apply it here. Curt Swan is another simply astonishing artist who, because his work doesn't look like Kirby's, is often overlooked, or even despised, by many superhero comics fans. It's an unjust way to look at the man who is without a doubt THE definitive classic Superman artist, and who, like Heck, and a few other artists such as Dan Spiegel, Will Eisner, and Milt Caniff, can draw absolutely anything, from any angle, and have it be instantly recognizeable. Cary Bates' scripts over the years on SUPERMAN were, if anything, even better than the stuff he turned in on THE FLASH.
- "Joker's Five Way Revenge" O'Neil & Adams
A pretty good story from a hack like Denny O'Neil, made immortal by some of Neal Adams' most absolutely breathtaking artwork. The scene towards the end where the Joker dumps the old man in the wheelchair into the great white shark tank and Batman, with his hands chained behind his back, has to somehow save the day, is as good a piece of sequential storytelling and finely detailed rendering as has ever been done in comic books. A full page spread right afterwards showing Batman running up a beach in pursuit of the Joker became everyone's favorite piece of Bat-art for the next ten years, reproduced on posters, jigsaw puzzles, lunch pails, stickers, and various school supplies and kids paraphernalia until the entirety of American pop culture in the mid-70s was virtually saturated with that one astonishing image. O'Neil also managed to make Batman both scary and impressive, not simply physically, but psychologically and intellectually, as well. All told, this is a great piece of comics collaborative art.
- Evanier & Spiegle's CROSSFIRE
While I more or less absently enjoyed Evanier's work on DNAGENTS, the various super powered antics there always seemed almost perfunctory to me... as if Evanier was aware that teenage superteams were big business and felt pressured to produce one for the always-struggling Eclipse Comics. His heart never truly seemed to be in his work there, but from the very first appearance of the Crossfire character, you could tell he really cared. When the Crossfire character got his own title and Evanier was paired up with master visual craftsman Dan Spiegel, the one time boyfriend of TV's Mighty Isis turned in simply the finest writing he would ever do in the genre of superhero comics. (His contributions to Sergio Aragones' GROO THE WANDERER simply defy categorization, so I can't mention them much here.) Spiegel rose to the standard set by Evanier and gave us breathtakingly beautiful artwork absolutely worthy of the sensitive, nuanced, exciting and entertaining scripts Evanier was turning in for every issue of this series. If you haven't read any of these, you've missed a treat; if you have and don't think much of them, I'm pretty sure you were invited to live on someone else's planet, not mine.
- A buncha Moore stuff - a Vigilante two parter, some good GLC back up stuff, a good Superman Annual with Dave Gibbons, and yes, okay, dammit, WATCHMEN, there, now shut up
More Alan Moore stuff. Nearly anything Moore has ever written that had superheroes in it, and that wasn't V FOR VENDETTA or HALO JONES, will get at least an Honorable Mention, although I surlily, and in a small, sotto voce, continue to insist that there are no superheroes in WATCHMEN. Still, hardly anyone is going to argue with the inclusion of anything by Alan Moore on any kind of BEST list, although I'm sure a contingent of the "We're Just Never Happy" lads are now grumbling "What the hell is wrong with V FOR VENDETTA or HALO JONES?" Never mind. I just don't like them, and this is my column. Go write your own.
- IRON FIST, by Claremont & Byrne
Yeah, these are absolutely terribly written stories, by any sane standard, which is why they only get an Honorary Mention instead of inclusion on the Whatever Many Best List. A rookie Chris Claremont, while not yet quite in the throes of the truly mad plot excesses that would come in later years on X-MEN, still ventured far from the realms of common sense and mundane reason for many of these storylines, in which Middle Eastern governments hired Angar the Screamer to kill Iron Fist, Chinatown ganglords with mighty kung fu powers got the Son of the Dragon helpless, gave him a deadly poison, and then let him go again, and Boomerang nearly defeated our young blond scion by hurling something at him called the 'rocketrang' which, when thrown, grew to enormous size, caused Danny to be affixed to it by some sort of bizarre magnetism that works only on adopted sons of hidden mystic cities (I don't know! I didn't write it!) and then went whipping off, turning end over cumbersome gigantic end, into the distance, where it blew up real good. (Danny survived, by the brilliant expedient of, you know, jumping off the stupid thing before it exploded. Quick thinking there, lil buddy.) But I was maybe 12 when I first started picking this series up, and when you're 12 and reading superhero comics, you really don't notice how dumb all this stuff is, or how even dumber the supporting cast (a female samurai and a black ex-street cop with a bionic arm, just for starters) is. What you do notice is the jaw droppingly gorgeous artwork of a then unknown Canadian newcomer named John Byrne, and the frankly astonishing fight scenes. The two issue story arc this series is most likely best remembered for has nothing to do with Kumbala Bey, big fat Halwani bruiser (alas) but instead centers around Iron Fist battling (and losing to) the Wrecking Crew, who then take his girlfriend (the black ex street cop with the bionic arm) hostage and make him go break into Avengers Mansion so they can set an ambush for Thor. Subsequently, of course, IF has to go up against Captain America, convince Cap he's a good guy (after breaking and entering Avengers Mansion, natch), and then somehow, the two of them have to defeat four guys who each have the power of an Asgardian god. It's, overall, about as dumb a story as you'd find anywhere outside a 50s Giant Size Lois Lane (a sequence where Iron Fist just stands there while a huge generator is about to crush him like a bug, assuming Cap will rescue him at the last minute, in order to get Cap to stop hitting him and listen to his story, just makes my head hurt) but the artwork Byrne turned in during the combat sequences in this two issue story inspired an entire generation of up and coming artists. I'm not sure if it's the embarrassingly lousy Claremont scripts that have kept Marvel from collecting and republishing these, or maybe they just don't want to make out another royalty check to John Byrne; however, they're doing a true disservice to modern day comics fans by keeping these old issues obscure. Byrne stopped drawing this way fairly early in his X-MEN run, and no one other than the late, great Mike Parobeck has ever even tried to use some of the amazing graphic storytelling techniques Byrne invented here. Truly, these pages deserve to be put in front of a modern audience in a full color, inexpensive package.
My much, much later realization, that Iron Fist was a character strongly inspired by Pete Moroni's Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, hasn't dimmed my appreciation for these issues. Hey, some things you bond with early and they remain a part of your heart forever. IRON FIST was nearly as badly written as anything else Claremont has ever produced, but I love the stuff anyway.
- Any Legion of Superheroes story not by Paul Levitz, especially if by Cary Bates & Dave Cockrum
This seems a gratuitous slam at Paul Levitz, to which I have to ask, what's wrong with that? Levitz, in my opinion, has never written anything worth actually reading, and what he did to one of my favorite DC Silver Age concepts is a crime and a shame. However, prior to Levitz sinking his hooks into it and making it all 'realistic', the Legion of Superheroes was just great big huge tons of fun, even when they were being drawn with either boring or truly strange costumes by John Foote and Curt Swan, or just outright deranged ones by Mike Grell. For a too brief period under Cary Bates and Dave Cockrum, they were truly the stuff of legends, but that couldn't last. Still, any series featuring characters with names like Lightning Lad, Karate Kid, Bouncing Boy, Saturn Girl, and Duo Damsel has to be worth reading, and if they're all teenage kids in a bright, optimistic future who fight crime and wear flight rings, and who have Superboy and Supergirl as occasional time traveling members, well, how can you go wrong? (You can let Paul Levitz, and later Keith Giffen, write it, that's how. But that was years later.)
- GIVE ME LIBERTY by Frank Miller & Dave Gibbons
Frank Miller seems to write best when someone else is doing the artwork, which given the synergy of the usual comics collaboration, and the level of talent in the artists Miller chooses to work with, really isn't surprising. While Miller's take on politics is pretty much childish, his penchant for vulgarity occasionally annoys me, and his fagbashing is just plain obnoxious, still, in Martha Washington, Miller and Gibbons have given us one of the strongest, most competent, and still most humanly likeable female characters in comics. I'm not sure Martha qualifies as a 'superhero', but it's my column and I'll break the rules if I wanna. Dave Gibbons, as always, turns in gorgeous artwork so crisp, clear, and stylishly distinct it practically doesn't need the word balloons to tell the story. And as stupid and vulgar as Miller's politics often are, his social satire is nearly always both stinging and hilarious, and he's in top form on GIVE ME LIBERTY.
- FLASH by William Moessner-Loebs
Even laboring under the massive handicap of staggeringly clueless non-art from Greg LaRoque, Bill Loebs turned in some quietly brilliant storywork during his several years run on the post Crisis FLASH. Under Loeb's understated, delicately nuanced approach, the brash, hard edged, emotionally uncertain Wally West, striving perpetually in the huge shadow of his dead mentor and predecessor, became a fully believable and naturalistic fictional character for the first time in his nearly forty year long existence. Basically torn between twin desires to be a model slacker on the one hand, and to measure up to Barry Allen's heroic example on the other, Wally's adventures under Loeb, as they had been under Baron before him, were as much a journey of maturity and enlightenment as they were an ongoing battle against colorful super-villainy.
In addition to a fine portrayal of his central character, Loebs also apparently scared the living crap out of the DC editorial staff by revealing that Barry Allen's one time foe, the Pied Piper, was actually gay. Having long since reformed, put on some weight, and settled down to be a nice guy, the Piper became one of Wally's staunchest friends and supporters, and his gentle, quirky, thoughtful demeanor gave probably the first overwhelmingly positive portrayal of a gay character in mainstream superhero comics. The very nanosecond Mark Waid took over writing the title, the Pied Piper vanished into oblivion and hasn't been seen or heard from since... but for a very brief time, there was one writer working in mainstream comics brave enough to show us a male gay character who wasn't either hilariously camp or dangerously deranged.
There's far more of worth to Loebs' scripts on FLASH than just a thoughtfully positive portrayal of alternative sexuality, and the fact that I not only bought something drawn by Greg LaRoque for years, but actually considered it to be the best superhero comic being published at the time, should speak volumes.
- SUICIDE SQUAD by Ostrander and McDonnell
What's there to say? There were some fairly stupid plots late in this series' run, and if those coincided pretty much exactly with the time period John Ostrander started letting his wife co-plot, well, say no more. Still, early on this series was doing some amazing stuff. Luke McDonnell's artwork never made it to the top of anyone's favorites list, but his work slowly grew on me, until I finally got the point where I couldn't imagine anyone else drawing the adventures of Colonel Rick Flagg and Company. SUICIDE SQUAD also stands out as being perhaps the only place where Batman was portrayed properly for the first five years after Crisis, in his occasional cameo appearances. Ostrander also writes a damn fine Darkseid, although if I were a member of one of his superteams, that's not a talent I'd prize in my writer.
- STAR BRAND by Jim Shooter and John Romita, Jr.
Probably the best 'realistic' superhero story ever done, at least, prior to Alan Moore's TOP 10 and PROMETHEA. Even the John Romita Jr. art isn't a huge drawback, although it certainly doesn't help much. Ken Connell's frequent misadventures as he ran into problems using his vast superpowers that simply never troubled folks like Superman or Green Lantern, such as actually losing track of the Earth on his first flight into space, and then having to struggle to find his native city again after getting back to the planet, were beautifully thought out little 'realistic' details that really gave Ken depth and credibility as a character. His fairly frank sexuality, as he entered into abusive, manipulative relationships that he knew he'd regret later, and even lusted after a teen aged babysitter, gave him a troubling level of believability, too. Since John Byrne took over the series after Shooter's departure, you have to pretty much figure it jumped right in the toilet and stayed there until the demise of the New Universe. Still, under Shooter, this was one of the little known gems in superhero comics of the late 80s.
- The Roger Stern SPIDER-MAN stuff, in both AMAZING and PETER PARKER
Before Roger Stern ran THE AVENGERS into the ground and finished up his run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN with some bafflingly bad dream sequence issues, he turned out some astoundingly good work on Marvel's premiere teen angst solo hero. Stern isn't a flashy scripter with a startling textual technique like a Steve Englehart or a Chris Claremont, but when he's on form, he's one of the best character-driven plotters in comics with an instinctive feel for working within established continuity and repairing the past continuity glitches of inferior writers. His portrayal of Peter Parker as a basically decent, fundamentally nice guy and good friend was a refreshing island in a sea of otherwise uninterrupted whiney self pity, an emotion that has never seemed particularly justifiable in Parker ever since he cashed his first large check as a photojournalist. As soon as Stern's run was over, Parker lapsed back into the same brooding funk he'd otherwise been in since AMAZING FANTASY #15, but for a brief period, he was actually someone it was fun to read about.
- Stern's run on HULK
Very few people ever knew what to do with the Hulk, especially for the first twenty years or so of his run, when he basically had the mind of a child. Englehart and Stern, in fact, are the only people I can think of who really did anything interesting with the character in all that time. (Peter David did some good HULK stuff, but only after substantially changing the character's basic behavior.) Stern's run was quirkier than Englehart's, featuring as it did a pretty weird cast of supporting characters that included SHIELD superagent Marvel Man and itinerant stage magician and wannabe con man Kropotkin the Great. It was Stern who initiated Marvel Man's changing his name to Quasar, through the simple expedient of having the character introduce himself to some kids who had just watched him get his ass kicked by the Hulk, who promptly fell on the ground laughing hysterically at his stupid name. (Since I brought it up, I'll also point out that Stern's Wendell Vaughn was an earnest, brave, straightforward, admirable guy, not the whiney, prancing, effete little wannabe Green Lantern he turned into under the nearly always creatively larcenous Mark Gruenwald.) Stern also created the second, Karla Sofen Moonstone out of cleverly linked together bits and pieces of past Marvel continuity, and in her first appearance she is more intelligent and psychologically effective as a manipulator than anyone has ever managed to write her since.
Last but not least, the sight of the Hulk on a titanium couch, being psychoanalyzed by Doc Samson (a sequence which ended with a hypnotically induced vision in which separate Hulk and Banner-selves beat on each other viciously, responding to Samson's plea that they 'come to terms' with the chilling bellowed response, "THERE ARE NO TERMS!") would have been worth a modern movie ticket's price tag, much less the modest 40 cents or so that was the cover price back then.
Stern's run was solidly illustrated by the always dependable Sal Buscema, whom Steve Englehart once identified as the artist at Marvel he preferred to work with over any other, simply because Sal always drew everything clearly, and even better, he always drew what the writer asked for.
- Peter David's ELECTRO/SIN EATER three parter, and some of his HULK stuff
Most comics pundits seem to think Peter David's DEATH OF JEAN DeWOLFFE story is all that. I was bored silly by it, but then, I could care less about Jean DeWolffe, other than to remark, in Caligulaesque fashion, that I would all female Claremont characters had one throat, and I a blade to cut it. However, the SIN EATER/ELECTRO three parter, which was more or less a sequel to Jean's death tale, quickly became one of my favorites. While David's assertion that Spider-Man clings to walls via static electricity is as unworkable as most other explanations for the subtly weird power, his treatment of both Electro and Sin-Eater is remarkable, and, as I've remarked before, I'm a sucker for endings like this story has.
A lot of David's HULK stuff was quite entertaining and worthy of note, too, although I'm sure nearly everyone already knows that. David simply seems to have run out of ideas on the Jade Giant eventually, and I must confess that I never saw any particular charm in The Pantheon, or, especially, all those endless, stupid, and pointless hints that Agamemnon might have been Bucky Barnes. Still, I enjoyed David's work on HULK greatly for quite a while, even after Todd McFarlane went completely off the deep end and decided he didn't need to work with a writer any more. (David seems to have almost acted as a one man recruiting team for Image, convincing several of the artists who worked with him that they, apparently, never wanted to work with a writer again afterwards. Sort of like the guy whose ex girlfriends all immediately join convents or become gay. It must be discouraging.)
- Englehart's COYOTE
Weird with a beard, but certainly worthy of an Honorary Mention. As with Baron's FLASH, a segue issue early on by Butch Guice didn't look all that hot, until the truly horrifying Charles Truog took over the pencilling chores and showed the entire COYOTE audience terror, in a great many pages full of shit. The first couple of issues, drawn by Steve Lealoha (I'm almost certainly misspelling that name) were some beautiful stuff, indeed, and Steve Englehart actually seemed to have some coherent clue where he wanted to take this comic at that point, too. Once Steve L. left, Steve E. let himself get bogged down, guest starring obscure characters he'd created years before for other publishers to break a copyright logjam, bringing in some bizarre but stupid aliens, and generally acting as if he really wanted to do some sort of occult NEXUS but honestly wasn't quite sure how to. I imagine the incessant barrage of truly rotten pencilling from Chas the Spaz didn't help him any. By the time the Badger showed up for a staggeringly annoying guest appearance, Truog had managed to suck all the charm out of this book and leave behind only a husk. Still, you have to give some kind of props to any comic where the hero impersonates Ronald Reagan and nearly starts a nuclear war with Russia, however badly drawn he is at the time.
It's worth mentioning in passing that shortly after this series debuted at Epic Comics, FIRESTORM, under the generally too wretched for words Gerry Conway, had a battle against some AmerIndian goddess character who billed herself as 'the daughter of the Trickster God, Coyote'. As a college acquaintance wryly remarked at the time "Thank God Steve Englehart is writing comics again, now Gerry Conway can have some more original ideas".
- Busiek's LIBERTY PROJECT
This obscure and all but forgotten series (which Busiek recently recycled a plotline from in the recent Marvel crossover MAXIMUM SECURITY) seems to have been Mr. Silver Age's equivalent to PSI FORCE... the single concept that brought home the same hard lesson to Busiek that Nicieza seems to have learned, namely, neither talent nor originality matter much if you want to make the big bucks in modern entertainment. It was also, like Nicieza's PSI FORCE, probably the creative zenith of this particular writer's career. While originality has never been Busiek's strong suit (he frankly admitted at the time he created LIBERTY PROJECT that it was basically "Alias Smith And Jones Meets The X-Men", a frankness that MARVELS Man has also since learned to eschew), he certainly he put more energy, effort, and enthusiasm into any one issue of this particular Eclipse series than into practically the entirety of his later, more popular work on titles like MARVELS, ASTRO CITY, AVENGERS, and THUNDERBOLTS.
That Busiek loved this series, and put his entire heart into it, is clearly evident to anyone who read it. That the failure of this series pretty much convinced Busiek to never try to do anything remotely original or stylish again is also pretty evident from his track record since. That this was an invaluable lesson for Busiek to learn, because in today's comic book marketplace there is no market for originality but endless reward waiting for anyone who can stylishly repackage the same old crap in a new slick way, is so self evident as to make me want to cry. Nonetheless, for a while, the creative near-genius currently lip-synching his way through The Greatest Hits Of The Silver Age on ASTRO CITY and AVENGERS (and no one does it better except maybe Alan Moore; Busiek's recent issue of GREEN LANTERN for DC's mostly lousy SILVER AGE publishing event was an island of excellence in a sea of disappointment) was turning all his substantial talents to actually trying to do something relatively new in the field of superhero comics.
Naturally, it didn't last, and certainly, the general cluelessness of the Eclipse publishing and editorial staff, along with artwork fans simply didn't want to look at from artists like Rich Howell, didn't do anything to help THE LIBERTY PROJECT's longevity. But for a brief period, it looked like something really cool was about to happen here. This series, along with Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle's STRIKE!, and, of course, Alan Moore's MIRACLEMAN, were pretty much everything worth reading at Eclipse Comics, but they were worth reading indeed. Alas, Slick, Cimarron, Crackshot, Burnout, and Johnny Savage... we hardly knew ye.
- Avengers "Ultron Unleashed", Busiek/Perez
That George Perez is one of the finest artists to work in superhero comics few would even trouble to debate. Kurt Busiek is near the top of so many fan's favorite writer list (generally one or two notches down from the apparently unconquerable King, Alan Moore) that there seems little point in justifying this entry. I'll just say that, for myself, this four part story stands out as a current high point in Busiek's tenure on AVENGERS, although I'm trying to believe that the eventual resolution of this maddening Yellowjacket sub-plot will be as good or better. If not, well, the spectacle of a maddened, giant sized Goliath beating the living crap out of his bastard creation Ultron, literally smashing the evil robot into a crumpled hunk of dead, useless, adamantium scrap metal, will be burned on my memory forever. You go, Hank!
- STRIKE! by Chuck Dixon and, I think, Tom Lyle
You have to give Chuck Dixon credit. Annoyed that Marvel and DC could lay claim to a superheroic historical tradition dating back to WWII, Dixon was not daunted: he just sat down and made up his own. Claiming that his modern STRIKE! character was based on the legacy of a supposed Golden Age character named Sgt. Strike, whose adventures had been published in small giveaway comic books enclosed as prizes in boxes of cereal back in the 1940s, Dixon set out to write a definitively realistic version of the old old tale whereby a young kid in the modern day inherits the mantle and powers of a Golden Age hero and carries on, in a uniquely modern fashion. That Strike's uniquely modern fashion included stealing his operating capital from local drug pushers, and that he had to wear big, thick glasses because his power belt, inconveniently, did not correct his lousy, bookworm vision, was just a part of the character's undeniable charm. When Strike eventually discovered that Sgt. Strike had been preserved in suspended animation by aliens and rescued him, he was rather rudely surprised to have the ungrateful WWII hero shove an alien blaster cannon up his nose and demand the return of his power belt, post frickin haste. What happened after this I don't know, because Eclipse Comics then imploded into the Total Eclipse crossover that I don't know anyone who read all of. However, I heard later that Strike heroically sacrificed himself to save the Eclipse universe, just like Starman apparently did in the Eclipso crossover a while later at DC. Must be something about the heroes Tom Lyle draws.
- Englehart's SUPERVILLAIN TEAM UP, CAPTAIN MARVEL & DEFENDERS
C'mon, it's Silver Age Englehart! Even his early DEFENDERS stuff, with really goofy plots in it like The Valley Of The Undying Ones, was tons of fun. SVTU during Englehart's brief run was notable for many things, not least of which, Henry Kissinger ordering the FF to cease and desist when they were just about to whup up seriously on Dr. Doom, the debut of the Shroud, and Doomsie himself getting kicked off a cliff by said dark cowled nemesis after attempting to exercise the ancient royal prerogative of 'droit de signeur', which is a fancy French way of saying, "I'm King, I get to bang the bride before her husband does". Unfortunately, Victor Von Rapist had a soft landing and survived the fall handily, but still, it was nice to see someone remembering that the guy is supposed to be an arrogant, amoral asshole, not just a tragically flawed, darkly honorable villain. As for Stainless Steve's CAPTAIN MARVEL, hardly anyone continued to buy the book once Jaunty Jim Starlin left, which gave Steve and creative collaborator Al Milgrom an enjoyable artistic freedom. I'll grant you, this freedom got a bit abused by plot elements like Rusty the Robotic Mule, and Rick Jones' occasional singing partner Dandy, but watching Mar Vell kick the stuffing out of the Destroyer was worth putting up with even stupid alien versions of the OK Corral... and when Steve E. wanted to jam cosmic, he rocked on out with the best of them.
- Starlin's CAPTAIN MARVEL, but not DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL
While it's certainly true that Jim Starlin never did a single damn thing in superhero comics that Jack Kirby hadn't already done ten times better, nonetheless, being one tenth as good as Kirby, at Marvel in the early 70s, made you stand out like a supernova compared to, oh, say, Roy Thomas or either of the Friedrichs. Starlin's CAPTAIN MARVEL was one of the very first of the fan favorite cult comics, with everyone in the audience going 'ooooh' and 'aahhhhh' as blatant Darkseid rip off Thanos screwed around with all the superheroes' heads while he was on a quest to sacrifice the entire universe to Death. Starlin never has more than an ounce of substance for every hundred pounds of style, but my God, the style is tasty.
DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, on the other hand, was simply way too much of a mostly empty thing, and if there wasn't a dry eye in the house when the Skrull general shows up and gives the dying Mar Vell a medal after he's been abandoned by his own people as a traitor, still, the whole graphic novel is just mindless maudlin overkill. And what exactly happened to all that cancer treatment research by the heroic Marvel super-scientists, anyway?
- Dave Stevens' THE ROCKETEER
This obscure Eclipse back up series was noteable from the beginning for its eye poppingly gorgeous art, fun script, and very nice pulp feel all around, stretched out in tiny little installments over the course of way too many years, because Stevens draws even more slowly than Steve Rude. THE ROCKETEER also has the distinction of having been turned into what is probably the best superhero comic book movie adaptation ever, although Disney accomplished that by chucking Stevens' rather seamy characterizations of the entire cast and cleaning the subject matter up considerably. (Fine work from Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, and Jennifer Connelly's perky little nipples didn't hurt one darn bit, either.)
Still, a great deal was lost in the adaptation, including Stevens' charming allusion to the origin of the rocket-pack as having been invented by and stolen from an always off panel Doc Savage (in the movie, Howard Hughes became the inventor, probably because he was someone who would be more well known to a broader audience, even leaving aside copyright problems). It goes without saying that we also lost all those nude scenes with Betty, and even Betty's name got changed to Jenny in the film, perhaps simply to honor the actress so sexily portraying her. (That may be an uncalled for suck up, but Lord knows I'd happily spend a weekend in a hammock with Ms. Connelly any time she is so inclined. She may not be on anyone's Oscar list, nevertheless, she's always willing to get full frontal on camera and frequently does, and that's a personality trait I admire in any beautiful actress. Given that she's the only watchable thing in many many otherwise terrible movies like MULHOLLAND FALLS, I think I can be forgiven for holding a special place in my heart for Ms. Connelly.)
And on that libidinous note, we seem to have come to the conclusion of PART II - The Honorary Mentions to the Best Superhero Comics list of all time.
Oh, wait... I forgot about:
- A scattered few Amalgam titles: SUPER SOLDIER, SPIDER-BOY, MAGNETO AND THE MAGNETIC MEN, IRON LANTERN.
- SUPER SOLDIER: As a general rule, I'm not as impressed with Mark Waid as everyone else seems to be. Still, he turned in a nice story on Super Soldier, the Amalgamation of Superman and Captain America. Of course, the gorgeous artwork by Dave Gibbons didn't hurt a thing, either.
- SPIDER-BOY: The plot makes no sense, but since it was really just an excuse for Roger Stern to excoriate the various stupidities and indignities heaped on the Legion of Superheroes since Crisis (and he did it hilariously, too) I don't much care. The weird Legionization of the names in the credits makes me unsure who drew it, but I didn't like the art much, anyway.
- MAGNETO AND THE MAGNETIC MEN - I like nearly anything written by Tom Peyer (although his DOOM PATROL chapter in SILVER AGE was kind of lame) and this Amalgam title was no exception. Again, I can't remember who did the art. MAGNETO AND THE MAGNETIC MEN didn't fill me with any desire to see more stories about the characters, the way SUPER SOLDIER and the last entry on the list did, but still, I enjoyed the issue.
- IRON LANTERN - While one cannot reasonably expect Marvel & DC to okay ongoing series around a sales gimmick like the Amalgam titles, Kurt Busiek made me wish they'd make an exception with this nifty little issue. Nicely drawn by (I think) Paul Ryan, it was watching with delight as Busiek lovingly and skillfully interwove the continuities of Iron Man and Green Lantern into a surprisingly coherent and entertaining whole that was the real treat, not only for this one issue, but for the whole Amalgam publishing stunt. After a performance like this, and the astonishing job he turned in on the SILVER AGE's GREEN LANTERN chapter, it's a shame and a crime that no one at DC is smart enough to offer Busiek a gig writing a revival of Hal Jordan. Busiek himself has confirmed (as if he needed to) that Jordan's GL is one of his all time favorite characters and he'd love to write him; if I were Kevin Dooley, I'd be mortgaging my house to offer Mr. Silver Age a big enough page rate. Screw Kyle Rayner and his coterie of braindead followers; falling sales figures will instantly vanish if MARVELS Man takes over the scripting chores. Or at the very least, I'll buy it, and really, isn't that all that matters?
If your favorite superhero comics story still didn't get mentioned, well, perhaps you'll find out why, in Part III - The Little Tales That Were Not There. Or, you know, not.
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John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. Still can't believe he didn't mention DARK KNIGHT RETURNS yet? I know, dude. Like, what's UP with this idiot? Hey, you don't have to live with him.