Wednesday, September 17, 2008



By Lane Williams
September 2008

Today is new comic book day. That’s Wednesday, to you neophytes out there.

All Star Superman #12 is coming out today, marking the end of a three year run from critically acclaimed writer & artist combo Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly. These two have been a money-making success on such titles as “We 3” (watch for the movie buzz), “New X Men” (the issue released September 12, 2001 depicted a plane colliding with a tower Magneto was holed up in), and “The Invisibles” (where Frank penned the final chapter, taking place on December 22, 2012).

Grant Morrison is a right bloody Pop Magick Beast, he is. When The Invisibles sales were dropping, he crafted a sigil and told readers to wank to it. Sales picked up. This Scotland native has spoken with aliens, or at the very least had his share of visionary psycho nautical experiences, and at a Disinfocon several years ago he recounted his First Contact, shortly before giving the audience notes on how to construct their own sigils. He works within the mindscape of the comics world with a sincerity, and All Star Superman is a quick pick-me-up.

Why is Superman important? Even with Morrison writing, even with Quitely drawing? Because for the first time the true Golden Age of Comics are upon us, and this series was a cornerstone. You don’t believe me? Ask Douglas Wolk, Gerard Jones, or anyone else approaching comics critically or anthropologically. They’ll take the time, perhaps, to inform you of something primal in the reaction people had to comics at their outset, before the McCarthy era, during a time when monthly sales surpassed today’s yearly sales.

Let me explain my position on the series, though. I’ve never liked Superman. He’s always been a rather dull bastard, really. An icon to pelt with tomatoes. Drunkenly driven into the ground like a rocketship with a baby in it. Too powerful, too nice. Hell, the last time the wider populace paid any attention to Superman (besides ridiculing that half-limp movie a while back) was when he died. Sure enough, the bastard returned, along with five impersonators that read like a cast list from the Real World in terms of diversity. Whatever. Morrison’s All Star series has been about the root dynamics of the character, a massive streamlining that lesser writers would be too intimidated by the scope of to take on. The basic origin is told in one page in the first issue, and if you need a recap : “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.” The accompanying images of course seal these lines into perfect order, and quite frankly Frank Quitely’s work is sheer brilliance throughout the series (though he draws some faces a tad too standard stock). Importantly, that first page is indicative of the stream-lining that Morrison’s writing has undertaken for this larger than life character, technically the first “superhero“.

Still, cutting down the fat or sprucing up an old or hackneyed character isn’t a new thing. He’s revamped numerous titles in similar fashion, from the Doom Patrol on up to the Justice League. The real perfection of the series has been the little things and the big things.

We have a good start. After Superman’s solar cells are supercharged to the point that he’s more powerful than he has ever been, but he has months at most to live. He begins to undergo a series of mythic trials that will end in either apoptosis (cell death) or apotheosis (spiritual ascension). That second part is more of a hypothesis due to issue 6’s beautifully convoluted/deliberately simple time travel scenario where Superman meets himself as a golden god.

Here, before I digress into some convoluted spasm of geekdom, I’ll hit on some major points of the series, to see if it sounds structurally sound. If you’re interested in the series, you should know that follows is a spoiler.

Superman reveals his identity to Lois Lane after he finds out he‘s going to die; reveals that his intellect has increased as much as his strength, brews up a drink that gives Lois Lane his superpowers for a day; arm wrestles Samson and Atlas after answering an unsolvable riddle of the Ultrasphinx; turns evil under the effects of Black Kryptonite; gets his ass kicked by Jimmy Olsen as Doomsday; interviews Lex Luthor on death row (!!!) as Clark Kent while trying to inconspicuously stop a riot in the prison as Superman; travels back in time with a team of his descendants from the future to say goodbye to his father the day he dies; staves off an attack by the Bizarro Planet by punching it; getting trapped on the Bizarro Planet as it sinks into the Underverse, haphazardly escaping in the nick of time; returning to Earth to find people from Krypton have moved in on his former position as world hero, dealing with them fairly enough after they crack the moon in half and then use the world’s bridges to staple it back together; creating baby universe Earth Q in his Fortress of Solitude, where Plato, Nietzsche and Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster all make appearances; putting the bottle city of Kandor on Mars (allowing for tiny superhumans that can cure cancer and terminal disease); preparing for his demise, defeating a “Tyrant Sun” with a team of Superman robots and, as Clark Kent, finishing an article on Superman’s death shortly before Lex Luthor shows up after having taken a batch of the same stuff Kal El gave Louis in the third issue shortly before his execution.

So. Yeah. It holds up, even in that sea of semicolons.

Everywhere in the mainstream of the industry, a meta-archetypal shift is underway. Marvel has created a very careful political bent in recent years, with industry cross-overs carrying tags like “Whose Side are you On?” or “Who do you trust?” replacing convoluted mutant affairs. Hell, they even killed Captain America. But no comic book character stays dead long. There was The Ultimates, which ran as a “GWB owning the Avengers” sort of scenario, where superhumans were weapons of mass destruction, and Bush‘s “Axis of Evil“ got their own superhumans to take over America, creating, naturally, an arm‘s race.

In the DC/Marvel arms race, there would seem to be a grander scope to the series Final Crisis than Secret Invasion. Secret Invasion is pretty ground level and basic. Attack of the Pod People. Sorry, um. Skrulls. Oh, who’s the bad guy? Embrace change? What? Final Crisis is more indirect, proposing tension for once, with prophetic bets placed on Evil winning, the multiverse collapsing. It mixes cosmic cops with ground-level detective work efficiently. Someone kills a New God at the beginning of the book with a time traveling bullet, likely fired in a later issue.

Superman, in another Grant Morrison scripted tie-in to the series, Superman Beyond 3D (complete with 3D goggles to give you a massive headache!), travels outside the Bleed of Realities to Limbo, where he discovers a book with every book ever written in it, and in that observes a metalinguistic barrier and monitoring system between his universe and our own. This is Morrison examining the paper-verse, or as Warren Ellis once put it via Elijah Snow in Planetary: “three dimensional side-effects of a two dimensional universe existing within a multidimensional stack.”

This is a conceptual fractal, see? We‘re talking about the ninth art. We’re talking about image and text fusion. It’s difficult to pull off, but it cleans up nice. Comics? Universally accessible. I heard they grew up smart in spite of the lead paint sandwiches certain regulatory systems forced them to eat at a young age. Ah, but then if the question is no longer if the comics medium is exclusively for children, what is the question? Perhaps, how is it slated to grow next? Is it a ladder? Is it like bacteria in a petri dish?

If you can see past the dreck of the comics industry (there’s always going to be plenty) and take a cue from literary history, you look for the writers. After that bloody bubble of speculation and false profits in the nineties popped, swamp-splattering even the Big Two, the artists proved an illusion of profits when they were in fact a means to an end. The writers of the past twenty years or so have given comics certain airs of respectability, a steady accumulation of good faith. The artists have learned good design technique, in the meantime.

After the dust has settled, this medium once reserved for man-children and hyperactive idiots would appear to have become a literate and well-adjusted (if somewhat quirky) jack-of-all-trades. Make friends with him. He’s been ignored so long that he’s the only one with a clear head and no restrictions. Even the Big Two have dismantled the Comics Code Authority, instituting a ratings system that ranges from kid-friendly to mature. There’s no proper lexicon, there’s no comic vernacular to speak of outside the collector edge or the creator network. We can construct a language, easily. We can accumulate the histories or we can reinvigorate them, paint them fresh, make them new again. Social and political commentary is easy in a medium as free as comics.

This is a shot in the dark, a call to arms for decent talent to take up the medium. Clear out the dreck. Or better yet, clean up the dreck. This is still a relatively new medium, not as slow as a novel or as quick as a film, but something that can act subversively or informatively without being too obvious. Maybe it’s time to take all these things said to be designed for idiot man-children and help their means of expression mature.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Comic Book Summer Events and the Death of My Favorite Martian

The DC Multiverse has been shifting at a more rapid pace of late, and the total character death toll has subsequently risen. Take, for example, the proliferation of new tie-ins and spin-offs surrounding the latest and arguably most accessible of the “cosmic house cleaning” series thus far, Final Crisis (written by popular psychonaut Grant Morrison and drawn by the rarely-sequential J.G. Jones).

The first up for fiery sacrifice on the altar of sales: The Martian Manhunter, more recently remade as The Manhunter from Mars.

J’onn J’onzz (the deceased party’s Martian name, pronounced “John Jones“) has played a sizeable part in the background of the DC comics mythos since his introduction in 1955 in a back-up story titled “The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel”. As with most DC characters, his origin has been revamped several times, including his status as the last Martian to survive a mind-plague, his only real weakness (or his version of kryptonite, if you like) being fire. A telepathic shape shifter in addition to holding an array of Superman-like powers, he lacked popular appeal due in large part to his being overshadowed by better known characters and his rather dry personality.

His murder took place in Final Crisis #1 at the hands of Libra, a 1970’s villain returning for what he describes as “An end to the age of superheroes. A full-on no bull&@%& twilight of the gods.”

Since the death (and subsequent rebirth) of Superman in the early 1990’s, mainstream competitors DC and Marvel have ranged the death, derangement, or replacement of major characters whenever a major company event occurs. For a very limited example, in the months and years following the death of Superman DC had a drugged-up wrestler break Batman’s back, had old mainstay Green Lantern go insane after his hometown was destroyed, and most recently had Wonder Woman twist a man‘s head 180 degrees (killing him) on worldwide television. These events were designed to make sales, and can be seen mirrored in the competitor, with national attention being briefly (and vaguely) directed towards the death of Captain America. Joe Quesada, Editor in Chief at Marvel, tells his writers that if they are going to kill a character off, it should mean something. In the case of J’onn J’onzz, it perhaps signals that with the maturation of the medium as a whole, the larger-than-life archetypal characters of the DC Universe are being usurped by their own humanity.

More likely than that, it signals yet another Comic Book Summer Event.

Every summer the “mainstream” comic companies starts work with a cross-over of some sort, and in most cases it’s tied into storylines that have been built up over the months (or years) preceding it. Final Crisis arises from the year-long 52, which was preceded by the tepidly-received Infinite Crisis, hearkening back to and intensely tied with Crisis on Infinite Earths. The “core series” of Final Crisis acts as a sort of panoptical overview of the Summer Event, covering major plot points impacting numerous titles, whereas more detailed and personalized aspects of the story take place on a character-by-character basis in other titles, such as Revelations, Requiem, and Rogue‘s Revenge. It should be noted that there is a Summer Event taking place in the Marvel camp titled Secret Invasion. Content-wise the two mainstream competitor’s stories are carefully distanced, especially in terms of scale, but on a closer read they are essentially similar. The message for characters? Trust nobody, because otherworldly forces are hidden amongst us, and they are about to strike. Marvel is far more direct in their presentation, with the tagline “Who do you trust?” replacing the last Summer Event’s “Whose side are you on?” DC has a more subtle approach in their Event, with characters hinting that the war of good and evil already happened, and evil won.

In the first issue of Final Crisis, old Kirby creation and standard-issue wargod-with-father-issues Orion, of the New Gods, is found dead in a shipment of toy super-guns. Major players at the outset of the core books seem to be the Green Lantern Corps (space police, essentially), the Question (a faceless Ayn Rand Ditko creation, the role taken over by former Gotham cop Renee Montoya), Multiversal Monitors (cosmic maintenance men) and, of course, the Justice League of America. Superstars like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, missing during the events of 52, have now established more integrated roles than centerpieces to hang the major plot points on.

It’s been said that the balancing good storytelling with giving respect to the history of a character is one of the greater challenges for writers at DC. Certainly, when dealing with the aforementioned icons of the industry, the real money-makers, there seems a worn pattern in their stories that iconoclasts would sooner reject than deal with, or better yet, simply ignore. Yet with Final Crisis you can see Grant Morrison’s love of the medium, handling minor and major leaguers with equal aplomb, their roles and motivations integrated within the storyline, rather than a tacked-on twist or feeding into simplistic motivations. These characters are more human than they have seemed in years. The nuanced illustrations provided by J.G. Jones, an artist whose work of recent years has been mostly covers, lends the story to multiple readings.

In short, thus far DC has delivered the goods with this particular Summer Event. The death of the Martian Manhunter may mark a new revival of the unpredictable within the mainstream comic book industry, but only time will tell.


All work produced within these parameters is written by Lane Williams.

Send inquiries to the gmail used to produce these parameters. Articles, reviews, and essays will be posted on a regular basis, and it should be noted that the output for this particular blog experience will be a small fraction of my total work.

I'm a recent graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I've been living in Chicago for a few years now. I'm fond of this city.

I have been reading comic books since I was six years old.  I alternate between loving and hating the mainstream, the independents and the success stories in between.

As time goes on the reviews will be more elaborate and simple, as need be. Feel free to comment as you deem appropriate.