COUNTDOWN TO SENILITY (part iii)
PART 3. The Little Tales That Were Not There
by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL
Check out more insane ramblings by John's twisted alter ego, Doc Nebula, at:
Being an aging geek and fairly fanatic Silver Age comics collector, it follows that I've seen a lot of other fans, and even pros, Best Superhero Stories lists. The vast majority of those lists contain entries not found on mine, and, well, that's what Part 3. of my Countdown To Senility is about... explaining to y'all exactly why, for example, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS doesn't even get an Honorable Mention from yours truly, while I exalt and praise something as generally reviled as a couple of New Universe titles.
I know, I know: "We don't need an explanation, John, we understand that you're just stark raving mad." But this gives me grist for another column, which Steve Tice assures me is a good thing. So we'll ignore the common sense "John is just frickin nuts" rationale, and look for something else a bit more entertaining.
So, just for kicks, let's see if I can't come up with a list of stories that most other people, fan or pro, would tend to automatically list on any Best Superhero Story Of All Time List (especially one with with nearly 60 entries on it, all told).
* GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, O'Neil and Adams
* JUSTICE MACHINE, Mike Gustovich, occasionally helped by others, most notably Tony Isabella
* THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Frank Miller
* V FOR VENDETTA, Alan Moore & some British artist I can't remember
* Various post Crisis BATMAN stories, often written by Chuck Dixon and featuring Bane somewhere in the background
* MAN OF STEEL, John Byrne
* DOOM PATROL, Grant Morrison
* ANIMAL MAN, Grant Morrison and some other British wank who took over after him
* MARVELS, Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross
* KINGDOM COME, Mark Waid & Alex Ross
* ATARI FORCE, Gerry Conway & Jose Luis Garcia Lopez
* FLASH, Mark Waid
* ASTRO CITY, Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross
* CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, Marv Wolfman & George Perez
* JLA, Grant Morrison
* FANTASTIC FOUR, John Byrne
* DAREDEVIL, Frank Miller
* SQUADRON SUPREME, Mark Gruenwald
* DEATH OF SUPERMAN, various criminal wanks
I'm eschewing things that, while they're fan favorites, still tend not to get nominated for big awards, much less awarded them, like X Men, New Teen Titans, Spider manga crap, etc. People buy them, but no one really honestly seems to think they're particularly good.
I'm also eschewing relatively recent stuff that really should be on the list, like TOP 10 and PROMETHEA, because both those series are still in their first years, and while I think they'll probably have Classic Appeal, well, they're also very much concerned with issue to issue continuity, with no discrete storylines having really appeared yet. So I'm going to wait to see where they go.
With the understanding, then, that I will now be explaining in detail WHY I don't like everything on that list (this is going to be fun):
GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, O'Neil and Adams
Controversial subject matter and truly astounding artwork made this a memorable series, but seriously, it's all relative to the time period, and especially, to the publisher's more mainstream work. Had something similar to this been published at Marvel during the same period, people would have noticed how lousy the scripts were, and nowadays, it's impossible to read even a page of this crap with a straight face. Green Lantern and Green Arrow get angry and relevant, addressing social ills and peppering their dialogue with more forced hippie slang than any three BILLY JACK movies. Even the Neal Adams art looks stiff these days. It's got no beat and I can't dance to it, Dick; I have to give it maybe a 3.
JUSTICE MACHINE, Mike Gustovich, occasionally helped by others, most notably, Tony Isabella
Don't ask me why, but this cyclically resurrected loser seems to end up on a disproportionate number of fan favorite lists. Mike Gustovich can't write traffic tickets or draw flies, but I have to give him credit for persistence. Where most people would have given up and gotten a real job, he's not only hung in there trying to get other people to think he's a real comics pro, but he's also stuck by the Justice Machine as well, apparently with equal hopes that one day he'll convince someone it's a real comic book. Tony Isabella wrote a Comico version of the team for a brief time in the late 80s, and as he was going through a "Look at me, Mom, I can write snappy dialogue just like Peter David" phase, he did manage to inject some surface style into what was still, at that time, a book about a government supersoldier force from tyrannical planet Georwell (groan) stuck on Earth. Nonetheless, underneath, the whole concept was still fraught with awful fan self indulgence, where the best character concepts were cliches, the plots had all been stale in the early 60s, and the art... well, the art just blew. Seriously, Mike, if you can't draw a giant standing with the rest of the team unless you put each of them on different ground levels, you shouldn't put a giant in the team, comprende?
A storyline in which brash wannabe leader and general Hawkeye clone Demon (one of the better names in the series, which should tell you something) discovers he's addicted to the drug that gives him his superpowers could have been interesting, if virtually identical stories hadn't already been done by 13.7 billion better writers already in the mid 80s, on much better characters.
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Frank Miller
Belligerent, brooding, brutal, and brainless, this story is an undeniable pivotal point in the development of superhero comics in the last fifteen years of the 20th Century, and one of the reasons so few entries from the mid 80s on are to be found on my Best Superhero Stories Ever list.
Still, even I have to admit that this particular wildly popular miniseries raised many intriguing questions, such as: "How do the mutants stick those knobs and spikes to their heads, and how often do they take them off again to shave their scalp stubble?" "When did the pre Crisis Superman turn into such a wussy he can't dropkick one lousy missile into the solar corona of Alpha Centauri?" "If thinking about Sarah is what lets Jim Gordon easily gun down teenage hoodlums without giving them a chance to surrender, what in the name of God does thinking about his first wife let him do?" and, last but not least, "if luring the mutant leader into a mudhole slows him down enough for a nearly beaten to death Batman to defeat him in unarmed combat, why doesn't it slow Batman down, too"? Oh, yeah, wait, there's also "How do those annoying little dolls fly with the Joker on their back?", "Come on, there's probably a few things wrong with the Joker that Batman can't fix with his hands, aren't there?" and certainly, "Well, gee, Bruce, why CAN'T you armor your head, if you really want to?"
Being less facetious, well, I understand how important and significant this particular mini series is, and I admit, there are sequences in it I myself find moving and memorable. For the most part, though, I think it's considerably overrated, nearly always mean spirited, and certainly not something I would have chosen myself to be the pattern for superhero comics in the 90s, or to become the basic template for the post Crisis Batman. Even if I liked it more than I do and the mutants are, truly, wretched villains I'd hesitate before I memorialized anything this integral to Really Vile Superhero Comics on any sort of Best Of list.
V FOR VENDETTA, Alan Moore & some British artist I can't remember
Extraordinary evidence that Alan Moore truly needed to get laid a lot more, or, at least, a sterling example of what happens when you take the superhero thing waaaaaaaaay too seriously. Anyone who can create anything as charmingly goofy as hypermice, or the Five Swell Guys, pretty much has to look back on work like this, and even WATCHMEN, with some mild embarrassment at just how earnest and humorless he was about funny books back in the day. For myself, I simply find this whole particular miniseries unreadable. At least his early MARVELMAN stuff had a sense of humor.
Various post Crisis BATMAN stories, often written by Chuck Dixon and featuring Bane, somewhere in the background
Lots of people think Bane is the greatest Batman villain of all time. I happen to disagree, but then, I prefer my Darknight Detective to be rather more intellectual than he has been in quite some time. Many seem to think Chuck Dixon's take on Batman is even more definitive than Miller's or Englehart's, and I myself would say they're half right. In all honesty, I don't think much of anything that's been done on Batman post Crisis other than YEAR ONE; it all seems rather generic to me. Beyond that, I don't have much to say, other than that the recent storyline in which Gotham City has become rather similar to Judge Dredd's CURSED EARTH and none of the other DC heroes have been able to do anything about it, strikes me as the about the stupidest concept to ever be done in a common fictional universe that supposedly has consistent internal continuity.
MAN OF STEEL, John Byrne
Many people keep listing this spectacular stinker, as if, like Mike Gustovich, they're convinced that if they keep reassuring themselves and others that it's brilliant, it actually will be. Well, it's not. What MAN OF STEEL actually happens to be is an indisputable demonstration that John Byrne can't write and shouldn't be allowed within ten feet of a word processor. Everything unique, special, admirable, pleasant, and memorable about the Superman character and legend as it had existed for forty years prior to Crisis is turned to shit by Byrne's anti Midas touch. There seems to be a legion of fans out there who simply don't understand why it's just flat out WRONG for a super powered Clark Kent to use his powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men to excel in high school athletics, who simply don't seem to grasp how shallow, selfish, and egotistical anyone who could possibly take pride and pleasure in such unfair and easy honors and achievements would have to be... but I'm not one of them. Neither is the Classic Superman, who would be utterly appalled by how badly his post Crisis surrogate behaved throughout the late 80s and 90s. Superman isn't a SEINFELD character, folks. He's supposed to be an icon we can all look up to. Someone should slap John Byrne hard for what he did to the Last Son of Krypton here.
DOOM PATROL, by Grant Morrison
Grant Morrison first began building a well deserved reputation for writing weird, pretentious crap that a lot of not very smart fans desperately wanted to believe was meaningful with this series. I'll grant you, it got a whole lot more interesting than it had been under Paul Kupperberg, but, my GOD, it would have been more interesting cancelled, too.
ANIMAL MAN, by Grant Morrison and some other British wank who took over after him Jamie Delano, I think
Morrison's reputation for stuff that seemed like it should be meaningful certainly wasn't hurt by this series, where Morrison substituted trendy animal rights preaching for muddled half occult psuedophilosophy. Charles Truog's usually rotten job on pencils made it easy for me to stop buying this crap once I figured out that nothing was ever really going to happen. Apparently, Justice League scripters from this period felt the same way, as Animal Man's powers continued to be defined incorrectly for most of his appearances in JL, after Morrison altered them substantially during his run.
I briefly picked up the series again when Jamie Delano took over, despite the fact that Delano's HELBLAZER had made me want to kill myself, or at least, him, whenever I read it. If anything, Delano's take on A Man was even more disturbing and depressing and disgusting, and I dropped it again pretty quickly.
MARVELS, by Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross
Thank God Alex Ross paints too slowly to do a regular comics series, because with my luck, they'd assign him to something written by Chris Claremont and I'd HAVE to buy it. I'll buy pretty much anything Ross does the artwork on, no matter how lousy the script is (see entry further down on KINGDOM COME), so I'm pleased to be spared the necessity. However, the reason MARVELS didn't get on to my BEST EVER list, or even get an Honorable Mention, isn't that it's bad or hateful, but simply that, other than the art, it's really not much at all. Kurt Busiek does a nice job on the first two chapters, the third begins to slack off in quality, and he should really be smacked in his chubby little head with the hardcover volume for the treacle he gave us in the fourth, but that's beside the point. What IS the point is that Busiek has been called, repeatedly, "brilliant" and "a genius" and "an astonishing innovator" and suchlike drivel for what is basically a recycled compendium of Marvel's Silver Age with a glitzy new surface veneer. As with ASTRO CITY, where Busiek has applied the lesson MARVELS taught him ("Crime pays... Kurt Busiek knows") in an ongoing and well rewarded manner, this miniseries is nothing more than Mr. Silver Age grabbing the work of a lot of earlier writers and artists, reformatting it slightly, and then actually somehow taking credit for it, as well as getting paid for it.
I admit, at least he doesn't insist on Marvel putting KURT BUSIEK'S MARVELS all over the cover of the graphic collections, but again, that's an omission he corrected big time with ASTRO CITY. To me, the question of just how good MARVELS actually is can be amply answered by a counter question: Would anyone have noticed it if it had been drawn by Sal Buscema?
KINGDOM COME by Mark Waid & Alex Ross
Whacked out fundamentalist drivel meets grim n gritty superhero comics in a story that, but for the godlike art of Alex Ross, absolutely no one but Mark Waid's mother would ever have bought. Where Waid's characterizations aren't flat out wrong they're simply stupid, and in the few places they aren't either, they're just boring. But the Alex Ross artwork is a visual treat. Still, that's nowhere near enough for me to list this on a BEST OF roster, regardless of what a lot of easily impressed fanboys who never read a 1970s Englehart comic might think.
ATARI FORCE, Gerry Conway & Jose Luis Garcia Lopez
Kidding. No one has ever listed ATARI FORCE on a BEST SUPERHERO COMICS list. To my knowledge, anyway.
FLASH, by Mark Waid
See everything mean I said about Waid on KINGDOM COME, and then double it here. Speed Force? Professor Zoom transformed by cosmetic surgery into a duplicate of Barry Allen? IMPULSE? CrossGen Comics should be given a prestigious award for getting this idiot out of mainstream comics.
ASTRO CITY, by Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross
Done any work in the Golden or Silver Age on a superhero comic? Want a quick reassurance that it was, in any way, marketable or of the slightest enduring appeal? Check out ASTRO CITY. Chances are, if you created a character or wrote a plot in superhero comics at any time prior to 1980 that was any good at all, you'll find Kurt Busiek has filed the serial numbers off it, slapped a fresh paint job on it, and written a three issue story arc around it... and if it was really good, well, hell, Kurt might have an Eagle Award that belongs to you sitting on his mantle, and if you ask him really nicely, maybe he'll let you look at it for a few seconds.
Busiek does stand up work whenever he's got established Silver Age characters to write, but that's no excuse for simply straight out stealing other people's ideas and plastering his own name in 32 point type all over them. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the couple of ASTRO CITY issues I've been able to read are not only obnoxiously derivative from cover to cover, but also, not written particularly well, either. Busiek frequently complains in interviews that no one in comics is blazing any new trails, but him running the most critically acclaimed recycling mill in the industry isn't exactly breaking new ground, either.
If Samaritan is so darned fast he flies around the world at superspeed righting wrongs as fast as he sees them, and his home base is Astro City, how is it that the Menagerie Gang ever even dares to step outside their secret headquarters? In fact, I can't see how ANY costumed super criminal dares to show their cape or cowl anywhere on Astro Earth. But, you know, I suppose if we're going to be logical about this, then we won't get to sit around the campfire telling all those old, exciting, traditional stories to each other, and Kurt will stop winning Eagle Awards. But, whatever the case may be, no matter how many fans think this stuff is just The Shit, and however much I agree with that exact assessment, I'm not putting it on any Best Of list.
CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, by Marv Wolfman & George Perez
The silver bullet that killed DC's Silver Age. It would be nice if it were actually well written (it's certainly beautifully drawn) but in fact, it's pretty much crap from start to finish. Especially appalling is Supergirl's heroic death scene, which Wolfman doubtless intended to be moving and touching, but which just made me vaguely nauseous. The worst was yet to come, though; no matter how bad the story was, it couldn't prepare me for the stunning shock of discovering that Kamandi was going to grow up and become Tommy Tomorrow. Collect it in hardcover and beat Marv Wolfman into a stupor with it, please. Then make Len Wein eat what's left of it.
JLA, by Grant Morrison
A lot of people liked this run, and, I'll grant you, it was certainly the best JLA we'd been given since Crisis. Still, that's not enough reason to call it a Best Superhero Story Ever, especially given the fact that Morrison made up a couple of truly lousy characters to stuff into the League instead of bringing back Hawkman like he should have. And what's up with this Plastic Man obsession, anyway?
FANTASTIC FOUR, by John Byrne
Look, I had high hopes for this, too. We didn't know back then that Byrne couldn't write, and while I was kind of troubled that he suddenly made Johnny 15 years old again without even remotely justifying it, I was willing to go along for the sake of a good run of FF after fifteen years of bullshit. And I'll even admit that the Anniversary Issue where the FF gets shrunk down by Doc Doom still reads reasonably well, all things considered. And the art was nice. However, by the time Byrne was five or six issues into this run it was pretty clear he was just going to write whatever the hell he felt like drawing at any given time, and once we saw crap like "The Man Who Had THE POWER", it became obvious we weren't going anywhere. Subsequent plotlines were either bad retreads of stuff Lee and Kirby had already done better, or just completely clueless crap no real FF fan could ever have remotely countenanced. Many consider this to be classic Fantastic Four, and you know, I feel bad for them, but I'm not numbered among them.
DAREDEVIL, by Frank Miller
Ninjas, ninjas everywhere. Deadly ninjas, fearsome ninjas, lethal, sneaky, formidable ninjas, that after twenty issues or so of determined, fanatical, zealous attempts to kill someone, anyone, finally managed to wound an elderly, wheezing newspaper reporter. Oh, and a new true love ex girlfriend for Matt Murdock we'd never heard of before, who also happened to be the finest and more dangerous ninja of all, and proved it by not killing anyone, either, including Foggy Nelson. Occasional guest appearances by the Punisher didn't help, and neither did a ret conned origin in which a wheezing blind Yoda guy with a pool cue taught young Matt Murdock how to ignore his radar sense because tough blind guys don't rely on wussy stuff like that. All this, plus Turk and Grotto. What was I thinking, leaving this off the BEST OF list? Well, at least Miller apologized for this crap with the lovely BORN AGAIN story arc, years later.
SQUADRON SUPREME, by Mark Gruenwald
Nearly anything by Gruenwald is going to be piss poor, as the man simply couldn't write, and his fannish obsession with details and commonalities between characters would have made him an extraordinary continuity cop, but certainly wasn't anything I particularly wanted to see in a writer or editor. Above and beyond the ethical issues of simply blatantly stealing a competing company's characters to make money off without their permission, there remains the simple fact that this limited series just wasn't very good. It dealt with an interesting issue, namely, what would happen if superheroes got proactive and just took over their planet and built a utopia, but it dealt with it stupidly, was written terribly, and had lousy art, too. Lots of people went 'gosh wow' over it. I wasn't impressed. And I am... the King! Well, at least in this column, I am.
DEATH OF SUPERMAN, by various criminal wanks
Okay, fine, having anything to do with DEATH OF SUPERMAN probably isn't actually illegal, but it's certainly unprofessional, immoral, and unethical. Roger Stern has very nearly made up for his role in this mess with other great contributions to the superhero genre, but everyone else involved is still, as far as I'm concerned, damned to a particularly excruciating circle of Hell.
I find it hard to believe that there are people who actually list this on their own BEST SUPERHERO COMICS lists, but actually, there are a lot of them. But then, some 40 million people voted for Dubya, too.
Still, for folks to actually revere and esteem a story that was conceived as absolutely nothing but a completely cynical marketing ploy, whose final, climactic chapter took the form of a comic book composed entirely of one panel pages and two page spreads, thus making it appear to be nothing so much as a coloring book that someone had already colored, and whose plot consisted of "giant ugly indestructible thing falls out of the sky, walks towards a city, and kills a Man of Steel who has inexplicably become too stupid to do anything except stand in front of it and trade punches"... well, honestly, it not only baffles me, it frightens me. A lot of you guys make sheep look like geniuses.
Hell, a lot of you guys make the Superman killed by Doomsday look like geniuses, and he couldn't even figure out how to lay his cape on the ground in front of Doomsday, then gather him up in it and fly him back into space. Or dig a big pit in front of him. Or assemble a JLA teleport screen in front of him. Or have Green Lantern pick him up in a big green tractor beam and toss him off the planet. Or have Dr. Fate open a mystic portal to another dimension in front of him. Worse, the stupidity was contagious; none of the other heroes who tried to get in Doomsday's way could figure any of that out, either. Hell, nobody even tried to rip his helmet off and have Professor X telepathically blast him.
Still, I've just realized one thing: Superman has now conquered the Absolute Worst Of All Time category in two separate entertainment media. DEATH OF SUPERMAN has to be, without a doubt, the absolute worst superhero comic ever produced... hell, maybe the absolute worst COMIC ever produced... and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE is now, and always will be (I'm very confident) the absolute worst movie ever produced. (I'm serious. Home videos shot by 9 year olds about baloney vampires would have to be better than SUPERMAN IV.)
I realize that I haven't actually listed a lot of stuff that has probably won awards over the past ten years or so, but that's mostly because I haven't read much of anything that has won awards over the past ten years or so, and I'm not so arrogant I'm going to try to explain why stuff I haven't read didn't end up on my BEST SUPERHERO COMICS list. (Besides, I'd think that would have an obvious explanation, being as, you know, I didn't read them. Even the Dubya voters should be able to figure that out.) So if you're wondering why I slighted some astounding thing by Your Favorite Writer or Your Favorite Artist and then didn't even explain how It Really Sucks, well... gee, you must have a lot of time on your hands. Go read a book.
John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, realizes he’s just offended a lot of meatheads. That’s okay. Meatheads can start their own websites. Trust in the word of one who knows.