Saturday, February 25, 2012

Living in the Past

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm starting to reread a bunch of comics from my youth (or even from before, which I collected years ago). And I'm going to try to blog about them as I go. I got a blogging app, Blogsy, for my iPad, which should make blogging on the go much easier.


Before I start posting those blogs, I wanted to set out sort of a mission statement. I'm not doing this because I think comics today suck, and the comics of my youth are great. There are good comics being published now, and there were crappy comics being published then.

However, the comics being published now aren't necessarily the same, in terms of style, as they were then, twenty to thirty years ago. This is even more evident in the superhero comics published by Marvel and DC, because they're the same characters, only now told with different voices.

I came to love superhero comics in the mid 80s because I loved the stories I was reading. To me, those stories are the definitive superhero stories. Batman by folks like Mike W. Barr, Trevor Von Eeden, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Doug Moench, Don Newton, and Alfredo Alcala is my Batman. There have been great Batman stories told since then, but the further away in style they get from what I first read, the less comfortable they feel to me. And what's the point of reading the same character for 20 or 30 years if it's not comfortable?

So this is my way of trying to explain why I may occasionally sound like the Grumpy Old Man. Please bear with me as we go along.

The thing is, sometimes, when I think about these old comics, I look online for blogs about them. And I almost never find any, probably because the Internet is a young person's game. But I love these old comics, and I want to share what I think about them. Maybe there's somebody else who feels the same, and is equally disappointed that nobody is talking about Bo Hampton's Lost Planet online. So I'm going to go ahead and talk about this stuff as I read it. I hope you join me for the journey.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

DC Comics Gets Me Excited (and not about Before Watchmen)

First, apologies for the lack of images. Scanner is on the fritz again.

The other week, DC Comics released some exciting news that I had been waiting literally decades for.

No, it’s not the Watchmen prequels; I think that’s a creative dead end. All the important parts of the Watchmen characters’ lives are pretty much detailed in the book; that’s why it’s such a complete work.

Also, I’m pretty much disappointed at the comics world using this as yet another excuse to jump on the “Alan Moore is a crybaby/crackpot” bandwagon. I made my views clear here, and more articulate folks like Tom Spurgeon and others have done so more eloquently here and here.

No the DC Comics news came out of their announcement of their fall book schedule. Mixed in with a ton of newer material that I’ve little to no interest in were a couple of books reprinting some of my favorites from the 1980s. Some, like Green Lantern: Sector 2014, aren’t too big a surprise (Green Lantern is one of DC’s bestselling comics, and this collects stories illustrated by Watchmen cocreator Dave Gibbons). The long-awaited collection of Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld makes sense, too; it’s one of the few properties that DC has that stands a chance of appealing to girls who enjoy reading fantasy.

Those Green Lantern stories were the stories that made me a Green Lantern fan in the first place. I had been a Dave Gibbons fan from his art in Doctor Who Magazine. While he had probably done other work for DC Comics before this, Green Lantern was his first regular American gig. I knew Green Lantern from the Superfriends TV show (and had read at least one previous issue, featuring his sidekick, Itty, the sentient alien flower) so I knew I was interested in the character. So I jumped on board.

The series, of course, featured the hallmark of the Green Lantern series to that point: Hal Jordan trying and failing to balance his personal life on Earth with his role as protector of an entire sector of space. Modern commentators tar writers like Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Paul Levitz, Marv Wolfman, and Mike Barr with a blanked “old-fashioned” brush, but I think that’s a lot of hooey. Just because a comic doesn’t read like Brian Bendis’ neo-David Mamet dialogue and uses things like caption boxes and thought bubbles that are no longer in vogue doesn’t mean it’s poorly written. Jane Austen and Shakespeare don’t read like contemporary literature, but that doesn’t make them any less classic.

In his Green Lantern run, Wein told stories of compelling characters getting involved in exciting adventures. And, when he had Hal Jordan stripped of the Green Lantern role and gave it to John Stewart, it felt new and different and possibly a permanent change, because it wasn’t something done every ten minutes. (And while in comics, everything always returns to the status quo, at least it lasted beyond Wein’s run on the book, and well into successor Steve Englehart’s.)

And the art was gorgeous as well. Along with some of the other comics I’ll be talking about, it helped me form my definition of what a good superhero comic is. I’m very excited to see these stories back in print. Hopefully DC will follow up with the Englehart/Joe Staton stories that came next, up to their recent Green Lantern Corps collection. And then, of course, hopefully they’ll pick up with Green Lantern Corps where that book left off. As I’ve said before the Englehart/Staton run on this book is one of my favorite runs of superhero comics of all time.

The Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld collection feels long-awaited in fandom. I suspect the love for the series is based more on the fantastic 12-issue miniseries that came first, rather than the (barely longer-lived) ongoing series that came after.

I loved reading that first miniseries as it came out. At the time, the only other fantasy comics I was aware of were sword and sorcery comics like Mike Grell’s Warlord or Marvel’s Conan books. (There may have been others from smaller publishers, but nothing I can recall.) As a kid whose early reading included all sorts of magical-land fantasies like the Oz series, Amethyst was right up my alley. The fact that it starred a teenage girl didn’t bother me, although that, too, made it an anomaly in the DC lineup at the time.

The story, by Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, made me eager to read each issue. They created an interesting world populated by compelling characters, featuring an extremely likeable and identifiable heroine. And the art, by Ernie Colon, was a revelation to me. As it turns out, he had probably illustrated a ton of Harvey humor comics I had read years before, but his more realistic style in Amethyst was perfect. His fantasy vistas were gorgeous but believable. And his real-world stuff was just as believable.

Unfortunately, the ongoing series couldn’t continue the quality, and the upcoming book reprints a chunk of that as well. Hopefully, they stop before the point where Mishkin & Cohn were fired from the book. All things being equal, I would have been just as happy with a color reprint of the 12-issue miniseries as this black and white collection of the miniseries plus the follow-ups. But I’ll take what I can get. And at least this includes the DC Comics Presents issue that features Amethyst meeting Superman.

While the Englehart/Staton Green Lantern comics may be among my favorite superhero comics, they’re a few rungs down from the Mike W. Barr/Alan Davis run on Detective Comics. In fact, those may be my favorite Batman stories of all time. (I also love Barr’s Batman and the Outsiders, with Jim Aparo and Davis. But I’m not counting that as a Batman book in quite the same way.) And now DC is reprinting them, in Legends of the Dark Knight: Alan Davis.

I’m really enjoying the Legends of the Dark Knight reprint series, since those legends are all my favorite Bat-artists. I’ve loved the Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan books, and who would have thought the day would come when Jim Aparo and Don Newton(!) would get books devoted to them? Still, I had scarcely hoped for the day the Davis stories would be collected.

To my mind, the Barr/Davis stories update the tone of the classic Dick Sprang Batman comics of the 1940s to the modern day seamlessly. They contain all the silly, wonderful crap I loved from reading those Golden-Age reprints, like the classic, over-the-top villains, Batman doing actual detective work, and larger-than-life fights on giant prop typewriters and the like. But they feel very much like contemporary comics, not just an homage to earlier times.

Of course, Davis’ art is fantastic. He’s even able to convincingly draw Batman and Robin smiling. I was heartbroken when he left the book after only the first part of Batman: Year Two. Years later, when I learned it was because DC redrew a ton of his art so that the gun Batman used matched the one that appears in one panel of Batman: Year One, I was furious. That such editorial short-sightedness ended a classic run prematurely pretty much sums up my loss of faith in company-owned comics.

But, even if we only got these few stories, they’re worth reading. Not that there aren’t current Batman stories worth reading, but these are a fantastic reminder of a time when Bruce Wayne had a personality, when Batman and Robin weren’t complete dicks all the time, and it didn’t take Batman six months to a year to catch somebody.

(Do I plan on buying this book and rereading these stories instead of buying the current Batman books? Why, yes. Yes, I do.)

Finally, perhaps the biggest surprise comes in the form of Adventures of Superman: Gil Kane. Once again, this collects the Superman stories I remember more fondly than any other, at least before the Crisis on Infinite Earths: the run by Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane. I haven’t read them since they originally appeared, so my strongest impressions are: Fantastic art (Kane inking himself) and stories featuring the redesign of Brainiac from a tubby guy with green skin to a creepy skeletal robot; stories introducing the Forgotten Heroes; and a special guest appearance by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.

The stories, written by one of DC’s then-hottest writers and drawn by a genuine legend, gave us a truly super Superman. The story was a genuine big epic, which made it all the more disappointing when after Wolfman and Kane left, the book reverted to self-contained short stories in the style of the Silver Age. Fortunately, this book just gives us the good stuff, and includes the Superman Specials that Kane plotted himself (or perhaps even wrote; time withers the memories) and the gorgeous DC Comics Presents annual by Roy Thomas and Joey Cavalieri, teaming Superman with the real Captain Marvel.

(I say this book just gives us the good stuff; it’s possible some of the non-Wolfman stories may be a little weak. Still they’ll look good.)

The anticipation for these books has me wanting to reread some of my other favorites from that period. Some, like Blackhawk, All-Star Squadron, Blue Devil, and Batman and the Outsiders, I still have in storage. I’ve started digging them out with the intent of rereading them, and will probably blog about them as I go.