Green Arrow: "I don't belong up here...fighting monsters and aliens and super-villains. I just help the little guy out. And a big club like this, you tend to forget all about him."
Batman: "Those monsters you don't fight? They tend to stomp on the little guys."
- JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED
We in the United States are closing in on the end of another presidential election season, which probably explains why some of this column's reviews are of politically-oriented comics and books, and why the "social crusader" aspects of the tales in SUPERMAN: THE WORLD FINEST COMICS ARCHIVES were the ones which spoke to me most strongly. You can't get away from the politics, especially here in my home state of Ohio, which has sadistically been deemed a "swing" state. It's already getting to the point where I can't walk to the mailbox at the end of my driveway without tripping over a candidate for or a proponent of something.
I won't be using CBG to endorse any candidates, but I wanted to express my sincere admiration to JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED writer Stan Berkowitz for summing up my philosophy of government in just a few lines of dialogue: take care of the big monsters AND help the little guy. Come to think of it, that's also my philosophy of what a comic-book super-hero should do.
Later in the episode, to my sad amusement, Batman tells Green Arrow that the archer is important to the League because he'll keep them honest. That may be so in the JLU Universe, and I think it's the perfect role for Green Arrow, but it does makes for an alarming contrast with the DC Universe version of the character, who is both a philanderer and a murderer.
Where HAVE all the heroes gone?
Off the top of my head, about sixty of them are hanging around the Justice League's new bigger-and-better satellite headquarters, waiting to be asked to dance. JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED launched on Saturday, July 31, on Cartoon Network and had more "wow" per second than almost any other DC animated series.
In the wake of Earth's war with Thanagar, the Justice League has signed up dozens of new members to better protect and serve the world. In "Initiation," Berkowitz established the League's modus operandi, introduced several "new" heroes, did some nifty character development, and still managed to include an exciting adventure in - get this - a half-hour show. It would have been a six-issue arc in many of today's super-hero comic books.
Green Lantern, Supergirl, Captain Atom, and Green Arrow (just hitching a ride home after turning down Batman's invitation to join the League) battle a nuclear monster in China. The back-and-forth between the heroes is enlightening and the episode makes its points - the benefits of international cooperation and the dangers of arms proliferation - without being heavy-handed about it.
Comics fans will delight in spotting their favorite heroes in the crowd scenes. Younger viewers will be knocked out by the sheer number of heroes; it's like POKEMON with people. Old degenerates like me will wonder why the League has a co-ed locker room, though it does allow a wonderful scene in which Green Arrow gets his first look at the Black Canary. Let's hope he's more of a gentleman than his comic-book counterpart.
This debut episode earns JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED a full five out of five Tonys. I gotta catch them all!
All the future episodes of the series, that is.
Venerable British weekly 2000 AD launched its "Spring Attack" with "Prog" #1387 [Rebellion; $3.75]. These seasonal launches have become standard for the comics magazine, marking the start of new features and stories. Judge Dredd afficionados should be extremely pleased with the current line-up as, counting Dredd's strip, three of 2000 AD's five features are set in Mega-City-One, that sprawling metropolis covering the entire eastern seaboard of post-apocalyptic America in the year 2126.
Dredd got off to a pretty good start in Progs #1387-1392 with five done-in-one stories and the start of a more serious serialized adventure. The best of the one-offs was John Wagner's absolutely hilarious "Finger of Suspicion" (drawn by Cam Kennedy) which tells the tale of a hapless citizen whose unfortunate hand injury gives judges and perps alike the mistaken impression that he is saluting them with his middle finger. It's one of the funniest Dredd tales I've ever read.
Total War, a group of anti-Justice Department terrorists, are back in Prog #1392's "Terror," the start of a Judge Dredd serial by Wagner and artist Colin MacNeil. It's a chilling beginning to what could be an intriguing, thrilling, and even thoughtful storyline. I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.
"Low Life" is the second of the Dredd Universe strips running in 2000 AD at present. Written by Rob Williams and drawn by Henry Flint, the strip stars Judge Aimee Nixon, a member of the "Wally Squad," undercover officers who live the lives of street criminals and riffraff 24/7. I like the core concept, but find the execution lacking. The tale's master plot - framing Nixon for mob killings - is a too-mundane waste of the strip's possibilities.
"Chopper" is much more satisfying. Its hero is a celebrated and most wanted graffiti artist and skysurfer. He has returned to Mega-City-One from his safe haven in Australia to rescue the wife of a recently deceased friend, but it's Chopper who needs rescuing from the charms of the dangerous widow. Kudos to writer Wagner and artists Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague.
Of the new spring features, the one I was most looking forward to his "Savage" by writer Pat Mills and artist Charlie Adlard. The strip continues the adventures of Bill Savage, star of "Invasion," one of the first and most popular features ever to appear in 2000 AD. In the near future, Britain has been conquered by the Volgans. Savage's family died in the initial attack and he's been fighting for freedom ever since. Then and now, the stories are an exciting hybrid of classic British war comics and grim speculative fiction. "Savage" nicely balances out the more futuristic serials appearing in the magazine.
I haven't been able to warm up to the fifth strip in 2000 AD's spring line-up. "A.H.A.B." - and the name alone should give you an idea what's coming - is set in 2086. Earth is threatened by a new Ebola plague and the cure can only be extracted from the brains of other dimensional space whales. The title star is the downloaded personality of a vengeful captain, discovered by a science team in the wreck of his "whaling" ship. Writer Nigel Kitching and artist Richard Elson do a decent enough job, but the series simply isn't my cuppa. Maybe next time.
2000 AD will always be a mixed bag - that's the nature of the anthology beast - but I'm liking these spring issues enough to give the run three out of five Tonys.
The editorial cartoon seeks to condense the issues of the day into pearls of truth. A picture, a few words, these are the tools of the cartoonist. Brevity is not merely the soul of wit for these men and women. It's a way of life. Which is why I find it ironic that a book which celebrates their craft has a title long enough to choke a python. Take a deep breath...
Beyond the foreword by Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and the introduction by Lucy Caldwell, curator of the Cartoon Research Library of Ohio State University, there aren't many actual insights about WHAT they do from the cartoonists. They talk about WHO they are and what they've DONE, and their cartoons certainly express their political and social insights, but, unfortunately, we don't get a glimpse into the workings of the minds and regimens required to convey their pearls with the staggering regularity required of them. I would have like that from this book.
What the book does offer is a breathtaking array of talents. Despite one conservative cartoonist's carping about the "liberal" media, I found that I couldn't pin any such quick label on a great many of the cartoonists. Some of the cartoons I liked least were those drawn by cartoonists who left no doubt about their political affiliations; they tended to aim for the easiest targets.
I was delighted to see so many women and even some cartoonists of color represented in this collection. The editorial cartooning field clearly needs more diverse voices, but this is, as they say, a good start.
ATTACK OF THE POLITICAL CARTOONISTS is a fun and useful book. It earns a perfectly respectable three Tonys and my hope for even better collections in the future.
My current favorite graphic novel of 2004 is BIRTH OF A NATION: A COMIC NOVEL [Crown; $25], an audacious and hilarious political satire by Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, and Kyle Baker. Set in East St. Louis, it starts with thousands of black voters being disenfranchised and the subsequent "election" of the dim-witted presidential candidate of a radical right-wing "junta." When the mayor of East St. Louis fails to get justice from the highest court in the land, he and his fellow citizens secede from the United States.
McGruder is, of course, the creator of THE BOONDOCKS, one of my favorite comic strips. Hudlin is the writer/director of HOUSE PARTY, a film I've never seen, but one which has just zoomed up my "must-see" list on the basis of Hudlin's contribution to this GN. Baker is, simply put, one of the most original and talented comics creators of our time.
BIRTH had me laughing out loud and, occasionally, stopping to think "Y'know, that's crazy enough to work." I think I might have literally squealed with outright glee when I saw how the new nation of Blackland planned to pay its bills.
The ideas in BIRTH OF A NATION are big and brassy, but never overwhelm the GN's characters. Mayor Fred Fredericks is as stand-up as hero as you could ask for. His allies, some of them far less trustworthy than others, are funny, scary, and sometimes both. The citizens of Blackland are plain delightful. The GN was originally conceived as a motion picture and, oh man, are there terrific parts for actors in this story.
Telling you anything else about BIRTH OF A NATION would be a disservice. It gets five Tonys and my recommendation that, if you only buy one graphic novel the rest of this year, it be this one. I'd like to see the book in every community and high school library in the country. It's that good.
Contemporary authors write about their favorite comic books in GIVE OUR REGARDS TO THE ATOMSMASHERS! [Pantheon; $24.95], edited by Sean Howe. The seventeen essays range from discussions of Little Nemo in Slumberland to Jim Woodring with stops along the way which include Tintin, Reuben Flagg, Adam Warlock, NoMan, and Steve Ditko. In effect, this anthology might be the most erudite comics fanzine of all time.
My reactions to the essays generally depended on two things: how well the authors' love for the comics they were writing about came through, and how much I shared their love. Jonathan Lethem, whose novel, THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, made use of comics tenets, tells of childhood friendships in relation to the comics he and his friends read. I could relate to that; even with comics fanzines, conventions, and online forums, I have never been able to recapture the excitement of talking about the new comics of my youth with the few and special friends of my who also loved them.
Steve Erickson writes compellingly of AMERICAN FLAGG and Gary Giddins does the same for CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED. Brad Meltzer tells of his love for the doomed Terra in THE NEW TEEN TTIANS, making a case, however unplanned, that his IDENTITY CRISIS can be blamed on the childhood trauma he suffered at the hands of Marv Wolfman and George Perez.
(I'm just kidding. I think.)
ATOMSMASHERS has many enjoyable, revealing essays. Geoffrey O'Brien devotes his entire essay to a single Nick Fury story by the visionary Jim Steranko. Glen David Gold writes on a mad quest for original artwork. Tom Piazza presents an amusing vignette starring Bizarro and Mxyzptlk. Chris Offutt discusses NoMan and "life as an outsider." Andrew Hultkrans rhapsodizes about Steve Ditko's work. For the most part, these essays represent the all-too-rare case of comics academia that hasn't forgotten to include the fun of reading comic books.
GIVE MY REGARDS TO THE ATOMSMASHERS is a stimulating tome best savored over several weeks. I read an essay a day or thereabouts, allowing myself the luxury of considering each for a while before delving into the next. It gets five Tonys and my suggestion that it would make an absolutely spiffy gift for the comics fan in your life...one which you can then borrow from him or her.
A psychiatrist wakes from a coma to visions of mighty heroes doing battle with even mightier villains. In these daydreams, the mundane world he knows has been replaced by a world both fantastic and terrifying. Yet there seems to be a connection between these phantoms of his mind and the real-life people which he sees in the course of his work: Dr. Susan Richards, Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, Frank Castle, and others. What can it mean?
Welcome to POWERLESS #1 [Marvel; $2.99], the launch of a six-issue series that hooked me the moment Parker rolled up his sleeve to show the psychiatrist his withered arm, a limb rendered "pretty much useless" after the student was bitten by a poisonous spider. Now that's an "oh, wow" moment!
Writers Matt Cherniss and Peter Johnson, TV execs in civilian life, do a fine job introducing the Marvel heroes and villains into POWERLESS and keeping the fantastic on the fringes of their story. Like a good horror movie before the big reveal, there is a sense of *something* out there. We just don't know what.
Artist Michael Gaydos is a proven master at depicting the Marvel Universe in realistic terms. He's as good as ever in this premiere issue. A tip of the hat must also go to whoever came up with the POWERLESS logo; it's in the style of the classic Spider-Man logo and establishes the series mood well.
Forget AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED and IDENTITY CRISIS. This is the super-hero comic which the fans and the reviewers should be talking about. POWERLESS picks up the full five Tonys.
It's good to be a comics fan these days. That thought races through my head every time I get my hot little hands on one of the DC Comics archive editions. For fifty bucks, and a lot less if you know where to shop, you get some of the most pivotal tales from the publisher's long history. Even stories that aren't that good have tremendous historical value. They open windows to decades past and give you a sense of the excitement with which readers young and old read these comic books.
SUPERMAN: THE WORLD FINEST COMICS ARCHIVES VOLUME 1 [DC Comics, $49.95] collects the Man of Steel's adventures from the World's Fair comics published in 1939 and 1940, and the first fifteen issues of WORLD'S FINEST COMICS. Because that title was a quarterly, these stories offer readers a chance to observe the development of Superman from his second year through 1944.
Living through the Depression and being raised in the Midwest, my home town of Cleveland, to be specific, Superman co-creator and writer Jerry Siegel wrote from the viewpoint of your basic average guy, albeit a creative and well-read basic average guy. Superman didn't start out saving the world from space invaders. He took on the human predators who used their influence and wealth, and also their firepower, to afflict the common man.
He also lent a helping hand even when there was no malevolence involved. In this volume's first story, learning that the world's fair infantile paralysis exhibit won't be ready for the opening of the fair, he builds it overnight.
These early WORLD'S FINEST stories offer considerable variety. You get stories of criminals, political corruption, social issues, human interest, and honest-to-gosh super-villains like Metallo and the Insect Master. Among the villains, my favorite is the Skeptic, who has the power to make people hate themselves...because I once dated someone with that very same power.
My favorite all-around story has to be "Talent Unlimited" by Siegel, penciller Sam Citron, and inker John Sikela. Superman aids a band of struggling artists and entertainers, but it's the group's own talents that win them their happy endings. I love this kind of super-hero story, a genre-within-the-genre largely lost as writers and editors embrace bigger and darker doings.
My least favorite is "One Second To Live," which may have been written by Bill Finger. Its plot of Superman trying to prove the innocence of a condemned man, a not-uncommon movie plot, is Finger-esque in conception. However, even with my obvious willingness to suspend my disbelief when it comes to Superman, I couldn't swallow the Man of Steel accomplishing all he accomplishes in the solitary second from when the electric chair switch is thrown to his finding the necessary proof of innocence. Yes, it's anal of me, especially since I would have accepted the same sequence of events if Superman had taken as little as ten minutes to do all he did.
We fans can be a real pain in the keister sometimes.
I have two other quibbles. One is that the writer and artist credits are somewhat questionable. Several stories list "unknown" for the writer when elsewhere they have been reliably identified as being written by either Siegel or Don Cameron. Some of the artist credits seem to be incorrect as well. It would behoove DC to make use of the Grand Comics Database [www.comics.org], which generally provides more accurate information.
The second quibble is me being picky. The biography section of this volume includes an entry for noted inker Charles Paris, the principal Batman inker of the late 1940s through the 1950s. Paris deserves any praise he gets, but, as near as I can tell, he didn't work on any of the stories in the book. Whoops.
Quibbles aside, SUPERMAN: THE WORLD'S FINEST COMICS ARCHIVES VOLUME 1 is another great addition to the DC library. Anyone who's surprised that I'm awarding it five Tonys just doesn't know me very well. Kudos to DC for this publishing program.
One last JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED note before I go. Actor Kim Shriner, who voices Green Arrow in the series, was so thrilled over landing the role that he showed up at the recording studio wearing a Green Arrow costume. TV GUIDE quoted him as saying,
"I really need to hit the gym. I don't want to show up at the comic book conventions and have all the kids going, 'That's Green Arrow?"
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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