Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Welcome to 2010, everyone. As is usual for my first column of the new year, I’m going to look at my pull list and see what I’m getting and decide what stays and what goes.
This year, though, I decided I’d do something a little different.
As most of you know, I’m an old guy. I started reading comics over forty years ago. What with so many people doing end-of-the-decade reminiscences of one kind and another, I got to thinking about the comics I’ve bought regularly over the years — and I suddenly realized that somehow, through all my twists and turns and dropping old books and picking up new ones over the last four decades, this year I’ve come back to the same titles and characters I started with, more or less. It’s the circle of life.
So in addition to looking at the current books I’m getting, just for fun I’m going to take a look at the same titles when I started reading them in 1970 or thereabouts, at least where there are counterparts for those titles. I decided that would be more entertaining than just running down the pull list. (Well, more entertaining for me, anyway. I hope a couple of you out there will enjoy it too.)
To begin with, for all my comics-reading life I’ve been a Bat guy. So Batman has almost always been a major part of my purchasing habits.
CURRENTLY: I’m getting Batman, Detective, Batman and Robin, Streets of Gotham, and Batgirl.
I don’t have a lot to say about these books that I didn’t say already in the survey column I did on the Batbooks a little while ago. Everyone’s talking about Batman and Robin, but Streets of Gotham and Detective, particularly, are also really impressive.
Kelly did a fine job the other day of explaining why Detective is such a terrific book, but I’d add that Streets of Gotham is a good solid read too, both the lead feature and the backup Manhunter strip. It pleases me no end that they’re all self-contained books that don’t really cross over with one another and that each has its own aesthetic. I suspect this approach won’t last and that sooner or later the books will be engulfed in an annoying line-wide crossover, but I intend to enjoy it while I can.
The weak link here for me continues to be Batman. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d miss Judd Winick writing a book, but it’s felt a bit flat and dull since Tony Daniel replaced him. Not quite enough to drop it from the rotation, but I’m edging up to it again.
FORTY YEARS AGO: Well, in the January Detective, #395, there was a fun little story called “The Secret of the Waiting Graves!”
Whatever happened to those kids O’Neil and Adams? They had a real future in comics.
I didn’t actually buy this when it came out, but I flipped briefly through it on the stand… that cover was too intriguing to pass up completely. In addition to the Batman solo lead feature, there was also a Robin backup, “Drop Out… or Drop DEAD!” by Frank Robbins and Gil Kane. The Batman story has of course been reprinted a zillion times — I think I have it two or three different places here, in various book collections — and even the Robin backup can be found in the volume Showcase Presents Robin volume one.
However, then as now, I was on a budget. A quarter only goes so far, and so I went with that month’s Giant Batman instead.
I’m pretty sure this was the first Batman comic book I ever bought, and it was a rocking good time as far as eight-year-old me was concerned. The stories reprinted therein, under the umbrella theme of Batman’s Strangest Cases, were…
“Batman and Robin’s Greatest Mystery!” Batman and Robin track down a crook who has stolen a sonic weapon. When the weapon is turned on the Dynamic Duo, they get amnesia. Commissioner Gordon allows them to search the police files for clues to their secret identities in hopes that it will restore their lost memories.
“The Hand from Nowhere!” A giant alien hand invades Gotham City, but it turns out to be a hoax perpetrated by Lex Luthor.
“The Man Who Couldn’t Be Tried Twice!” Batman testifies in a murder case to help free the defendant, James Lee, who is accused of killing his former trapeze artist partner. Lee is acquitted, then brags that he did kill his partner, Wyler. Batman’s name is ruined and he has to redeem himself and find out who did commit the crime for real.
“The Body in the Bat-Cave!” Batman and Robin discover the body of electronics genius Alec Wyre in the Bat-Cave. They believe Wyre and an associate discovered the cave, then the associate murdered him. Batman then tracks down three suspects, despite the fact that one must know his secret identity.
“Four Hours to Live!” This was especially cool, a reprint of a sequence from the 1940s Batman Sunday strips. A death row convict named Bower pleads with Batman to clear him before his scheduled execution.
“The League Against Batman!” A new hooded criminal known as the Wrecker strikes against Batman by destroying objects dedicated to the crimefighter. He destroys Batman toys, signs, and sculptures, claiming to seek revenge for his three brothers who were executed after Batman captured them.
As an intro to Batman in his comics incarnation, well, it was admittedly no O’Neil/Adams. But it was a really nice sampler collection, a great bang for the buck, and certainly cool enough to keep me interested.
THOUGHTS ABOUT THEN AND NOW: The level of craft strikes me as roughly equal in both eras; I’m not one to point and jeer about ‘old-fashioned’ comics storytelling, nor really do I want to go on and on about how much better things were in the old days. A good Bat comic is a good Bat comic, regardless of style. The things I miss about older comics have mostly to do with the density of story on the page; for example, I doubt any of the modern creative teams working on the Batbooks could handle the kind of super-compression required of the stories presented in the old Batman Giant.The argument for decompression is, of course, that there’s more room for character development and nuance, but that doesn’t seem to be the case most of the time — the room is there, but it rarely gets used. The one real exception I’d grant is Rucka and Williams on Detective, who are cramming an extraordinary amount of story into their Batwoman series.
The main difference that jumps out at me is how many of the older Batman stories were built on ratiocination and detective work. This is something I’ve mentioned before, but seriously, DC, whether it’s Dick Grayson or Bruce Wayne in the suit, I think it would be appropriate to have the World’s Greatest Detective actually doing a little detecting now and then. In modern Batman stories the detective work is presented as a fait accompli, we jump from action scene to action scene with a tossed-off remark about “Oracle found this address” or something like that. I’d like to see more actual clues and solving of mysteries along with the action. Here’s a random example of what I mean, from Batman Family #18, “The Monstrosity Chase.”
There’s a certain feeling of triumph that goes along with Batman telling the villain exactly how he figured it out that you don’t see much any more. I wish we got more of that kind of thing along with the action.
Despite being largely a Bat guy for all of my comics-reading years, I have a soft spot for the Superman books as well. Sometimes I keep up with them and sometimes I don’t, but right now I’m enjoying them.
CURRENTLY: I am getting Superman, Action, World of New Krypton, and Supergirl. The triangle-numbered books, in other words.
I got interested in the Superman titles again a couple of years ago, following the Infinite Crisis/One Year Later “soft reboot” that most of the DC books got.
I have to admit that as a marketing ploy, “One Year Later” worked on me. I picked up a bunch of stuff I’d otherwise not have bothered with, and some of it stuck. In particular, I really liked what Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns were doing on the Superman books, the art looked good, I was on board. Even with the various schedule snafus that plagued the books for a while there, I was still enjoying them.
And I still am, by and large. I think this “New Krypton” thing is dragging a little, but it’s set up a lot like “No Man’s Land” was in the Batman books about ten years ago. I’m a lot more easygoing about this kind of mega-arc when there’s a definite end in sight. We know World of New Krypton is twelve issues, therefore we know this is all going to take a year to shake out. So that’s fine with me. It’s my hope that DC plans to abide by this unwritten contract and actually wrap these various plot threads up at the end of that year — at least the stuff about New Krypton and Project 1134.
You can see that they are trying desperately to structure the thing into individual chapters and smaller arcs so as not to drive people crazy when it comes time to do some sort of collected edition, but these read best as serialized monthlies — or one serialized weekly, rather, if you buy into the triangle numbering — and that’s how I like to read them.
The front-runner of the bunch is clearly Supergirl, it’s far and away the most entertaining of the four, and not coincidentally, it tends to be the most self-contained as well. It’s astonishing to me how much damage control, fresh momentum, and hell, just plain fun that writer Sterling Gates was able to inject into this once-ailing title in just a few short months.
I’m also really enjoying what Greg Rucka is doing with the new Nightwing and Flamebird in Action, though I wish they’d incorporated just a little more of the original costume design from the old Superman and Jimmy versions. Armored costumes never really work for me.
World of New Krypton from Rucka and Robinson is a book I still mostly like, but it feels like it’s meandering. Sometimes it’s about Superman adjusting to life in Kandor and sometimes it’s about Zod and sometimes it’s about interplanetary politics… for a finite mini-series, there’s not much of a through-line to it.
Superman under James Robinson blows hot and cold for me. When it’s about Mon-El trying to adjust to life on Earth and the friendships he is forging with the Guardian and the rest of the Science Police, I enjoy it a great deal. When it’s about Jimmy Olsen, tough street-savvy reporter, it makes me want to snort and giggle.
(In fairness, though, that particular take on Jimmy has ALWAYS made me snort and giggle, even back in the 70s when they were trying to sell him as “Mr. Action.”)
On the whole, though, I’m digging this sprawling mega-arc with New Krypton and General Lane and Nightwing and Flamebird and all the rest of it, and the individual bright spots like Supergirl are especially enjoyable. So far, so good.
FORTY YEARS AGO: In January of 1970, I picked up a couple of Superman books. One of them, as it turned out, became one of my favorite comics of all time.
Superman #222 was a Giant, which was always my comic of choice when I was given a quarter to spend at the drugstore. (Even at the age of eight, I was extremely budget-conscious.) This one really hit me where I lived, because even though the theme was supposedly “Superman’s Secret Family,” the stories were in fact always coming back to the idea of alienation and loneliness.
In “Superman’s Lost Brother,” another rocket from Krypton crashes on Earth — and Superman discovers it’s apparently his long-lost brother, Halk Kar.
What appealed to me about this one was how Superman, despite clearly being the stronger one of the two, tries to help Halk out and spare his feelings — in stark contrast to the bullying schoolyard jocks I was dealing with on the playground back then. It turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, of course, and as Halk goes flying off in his spaceship Superman was just as sad to lose a friend as I would have been.
“The Sweetheart Superman Forgot” had an asshole jock bully as a villain, something I had a lot of personal experience with. Superman encounters Red Kryptonite which causes him to lose his powers and suffer amnesia. This time the effects last for weeks. During his period of amnesia, Superman takes the identity of Jim White and gets a job as a lumberman. He falls in love with a wealthy farm girl, Sally Selwyn, and plans to marry her. Bart Benson, a lumberjack jealous of Jim, causes a rodeo accident leaving Jim crippled. It’s all palpitating Jerry Siegel tragedy, rife with captions reading “HOW IRONIC!” Nevertheless, it was high tragedy for an eight-year-old. I ached for the powerless amnesiac Superman as he suffered the relentless tormenting from vicious Bart Benson.
But the real showpiece was the reprint of the Full-Length Imaginary Novel, “The Fantastic Story of Superman’s Sons!” from Superman #166 by Edmond Hamilton and Curt Swan. The premise is simple — in the future, Superman marries a woman of Earth. They have two sons — one super, one not.
Or, more to the point, a jock and a bookworm. Guess which one turns out to be kind of a dick and a show-off?
So you can imagine how incredibly empowered and validated little me felt when it turned out that powerless, bookish Kal-El Junior saves the day after Superman and Jor-el II get their musclebound asses handed to them by the renegade Gann Artar.
Apart from the admittedly blatant brains vs. brawn allegory, the story had incredible range and imagination on display… in the space of 26 pages, I was introduced to the mythology of lost Krypton, the Phantom Zone, the bottle city of Kandor (where the two boys do a brief stint as Nightwing and Flamebird) and the legacy of the House of El. All tied to a nerd vs. jock story that I identified with enormously.
The final story with “Superboy’s Sister” was another mistaken-identity piece, a bit fluffy after the epic tragedies that preceded it, but it was a nice little palate-cleanser. I read that book to pieces.
And as it happened I’d also picked up Action Comics that month.
“The Immortal Superman!” by Cary Bates and Curt Swan was an extremely creepy and yet compelling story. It actually ran in multiple parts, over three issues of Action, and though I missed part two I was able to get the conclusion two months later.
The story was this. Because of a series of events too complex to get into here, Superman uses a damaged time bubble to travel to the future.
But he discovers that traveling in the malfunctioning bubble ages him as he goes, and even though he gets older and weaker each trip, he can’t die. What’s more, the Time Trapper has fixed things so Superman can only go forward, never back.
As he bounces through future era through future era, Superman grows more wistful and alienated. It’s especially unnerving when he checks in on how his friends’ lives turned out without him.
See what I mean about creepy? Perry and Jimmy immediately cash in and Lois is so damaged she marries the guy who plays Superman in the movies.
Meanwhile, Luthor still can’t let it go.
He programs a robot to carry his mind within it throughout eternity with the directive of finding Superman, wherever he might have ended up, and then destroy him. Eventually the Luthor-drone catches up to the decrepit Superman and almost does him in… but not quite.
After taking out the robo-Luthor, Superman reaches the end of time itself, pushes on ahead — since he can’t go back — and somehow ends up in an Einsteinian loop, reliving his past right up to the point in 1970 when he was about to board the damaged time bubble. Only this time it’s gone. Superman’s been given a second chance.
This arc blew my mind when I was eight. And it’s still a little unsettling today, especially the way the future unfolded after Superman disappeared. (Seriously, how messed up is that bit with Lois and the movie star?)
The main attraction for youthful me was the Superman lead feature, but I was also intrigued by my glimpses of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 8-page backup stories.
I’m pretty sure that was the first time I encountered the Legion, too. I didn’t fall in love with the weight of Legion mythology as so many other DC fans of my era did, but they did intrigue me a little… enough that a decade or so later, when Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen were doing their thing with “The Great Darkness Saga” in the Legion’s own book, I was on board for that run.
THOUGHTS ABOUT THEN AND NOW: I was surprised to note how much the mythology of lost Krypton still drives the Superman books. John Byrne made such a big thing of taking all that out when he did his 1986 revamp, but over the decades since then, it’s all crept back in, to the point where the Superman we have today has much more in common with his Silver Age counterpart than I’d have guessed at first glance.
Some people have opined that it’s because DC is currently driven by a wave of Bronze-Age nostalgia just generally, but I’d argue that the Superman mythology keeps drifting back to this “last son of Krypton” idea because it works. There’s a lot of story material there, much more than there is in “Superman, strongest guy and most inspirational hero in the DC Universe.”
The one element I really miss in the current Superman books is the presence of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter. I’m hoping that after this New Krypton business wraps up, we’ll see more of Clark. So many other classic Superman elements have been revived with a fresh coat of paint the last couple of years, I’d like to see Clark and the Daily Planet staff get that same level of attention.
I only really get one other monthly book apart from the Superman and Batman family of titles. And that is Dynamite’s Lone Ranger.
This title continues to be terrifically engaging and well-done. It absolutely would read better in trade than as a monthly, and I really should be buying it that way, but the truth is that I love it so much I can’t bear to wait. I wish it came out more often and more regularly, but it’s a treat that we get it at all.
FORTY YEARS AGO: In 1970 the Ranger was actually on a hiatus. Gold Key was doing a sporadic quarterly reprint series of the old Dell stories from Tom Gill and company.
I didn’t buy them, but I’d read them if I encountered one in, say, the dentist’s office or something. They were okay. I do tend to scoop them up today when I see them at shows, but only if I can get them cheap, and even that is mostly because I love those vintage painted covers.
But my Ranger experience in the 1970s was mostly television reruns of the demented Cannon Films cartoons.
You can find a few of them on YouTube if you look.
THOUGHTS ABOUT THEN AND NOW: Oh, God, there’s no contest. The current Lone Ranger from Dynamite is the best Ranger ever. Period. I hope Matthews and Cariello stay on that book for years to come.
And there you have it. Those are the monthly books left on the list — everything else I’m getting in trade collections, usually discounted from Amazon. I suspect 2010 will be the year when I decide to go entirely to the bookshelf side of the business. The financial incentives are getting too big to ignore.
That’s probably why the monthly books that have stayed on the list tended to be sentimental favorites. I have to admit that it really did surprise me that there was so much overlap between the titles I bought when I was eight and what I’m getting now. I’m not sure if there’s a lesson there, other than maybe that however much we might claim it’s not so, when you get right down to it we superhero fans tend not to stray too far off the reservation. At least I don’t.
Also, a quick thanks to Mike’s invaluable Time Machine Index of DC Comics, a toy I never get tired of playing with and the inspiration for this week’s then-and-now approach to the column. Likewise I cribbed a lot of the Superman scans from the Sanning’s Legion Chronology Page, another site that’s great fun for us geezers to play with.
See you next week.
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