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Friday I’m in Love (Comics That Made Me Happy Last Year)

I’ve been up and down with comics over the years, particularly superhero comics. Every so often (on the downs) I catch myself thinking about just quitting them for good.

And then I have a year like this last one, where I find myself falling in love with comics all over again.

Sure, lots of stupid stuff happened at both Marvel and DC in 2011. Probably the most personally exasperating for me was DC’s case of what appeared to be uncontrollable Attention Deficit Disorder…. which is to say, their habit of expending a fair amount of time and energy getting readers excited about a new title or creative team, and then just as word’s getting out that there’s something pretty good going on, that title is replaced or relaunched or, in a couple of cases, just plain canceled.

Geoff Johns has fixed and relaunched Hawkman TWICE now. The ink had hardly dried on the second time, in BRIGHTEST DAY, before DC decided to throw it all out and start over.

It’s really annoying. Of course, the BOLD NEW DIRECTION! has always been part of superhero comics– really, it’s part of any long-running series franchise. (Doctor Who, James Bond, Star Trek, you can probably think of a dozen others.) To keep from getting stale, you have to shake things up every so often. I understand that.

But it’s possible to get a bit carried away. And DC, in particular, has had a hard time committing to a premise in recent years, especially in its Bat-books.

Exhibit A: Batgirls on parade.

People snicker about there being five different Robins, but that’s nothing compared to the Batgirls. Let’s recap, just for fun.

The Cassandra Cain Batgirl was a character people seemed to like; her first book ran 73 issues, making her the most successful Batgirl in comics to date. So then her book was canceled, and DC decided to turn her evil. Fans threw a fit and DC backpedaled off that with a special miniseries, then– after investing all that time and talent in doing the Cassandra Cain fix– they decided to launch a new ongoing title with an all-NEW Batgirl character, Stephanie Brown. This annoyed the Cassandra fans but eventually Bryan Miller and Lee Garbett’s smart storytelling won people over. In fact, we all liked the Stephanie version well enough to vote that book into CBR’s best of the year right on this very site. (Came in at #35 on the top 100.) So of course DC canceled THAT one and replaced it with a version of the original Barbara Gordon Batgirl. One supposes that was meant to get ‘back to basics,’ but the net result seems mostly to have been to piss off fans of ALL the Batgirl characters to date, including the ones that liked Barbara Gordon as Oracle.

All this happened in just three years… in a periodical publishing format that only puts out twelve issues a year, generally taking between four and six issues to complete one discrete story arc. What’s more, all of that’s not even counting the revamp of Cassandra Cain into “Black Bat” in Batman Inc., or the addition of Kate Kane as the new Batwoman, or Barbara Gordon’s presence in Birds of Prey; shucks, those books’ on-again/off-again publishing history looks like a model of stability in comparison to the revolving door that Batgirl has become. The amazing thing is that DC still thinks readers will take a chance on committing to any kind of Batgirl title at all after having been burned so often.

Then there’s Batman himself. He’s Bruce Wayne, then Bruce is killed and Dick Grayson takes over, then Bruce is back and Batman is both Bruce Wayne AND Dick Grayson, and furthermore Batman’s suddenly decided to be the CEO of a franchise operation with the Batmen of Japan and France and Argentina, and then that book’s canceled and now he’s –I’m not sure. A patriarch? A mentor? Maybe still a franchise CEO, but now just with the Gotham crew and Batwing? I can’t keep up.

My favorite part of THIS particular case of premise anxiety is when they put out the special LEVIATHAN STRIKES! with the disclaimer that it all takes place before everything was wiped out by the events of FLASHPOINT. Somewhere a continuity geek is quietly weeping.

By the time I figure it out, DC will probably have done another relaunch with a whole new premise, quite possibly with new origins for everyone.

–sorry, starting to get wound up into a rant, there. All that was just preamble, though.

The point is, here’s what was different about 2011. In the past, when I’ve found myself snarking off about dumb things superhero publishers do, occasionally even spiraling up into a full-on rant (I gotta tell you, this premise ADD thing at DC has irritated me so much it’s almost been its own column a couple of times) — when that happens, the end of that spiral always lands in the same place. With the disgusted I-give-up moment. The one where I think, I don’t know why the hell I even bother with these goddamn stupid things any more.

But not this last year. In 2011 I couldn’t even work up to a mild sneer before something wonderful showed up. Often from the same publisher I was annoyed with.

For example, at the same time DC was annoying the crap out of me with their constant tinkering with the current Bat-books, they also started reprinting my very favorite Bat-stuff from their archives.

My only caveat with these gorgeous Don Newton and Gene Colan hardcover Batman books is that they aren't really looking at the stories AS stories, but just blindly reprinting whatever issues each man had an art credit on. So sometimes you get a story start with no finish, that kind of thing. But I'm thrilled to have them anyway, they are lovely books.

Likewise, as irked as I get with DC for continually plundering Jack Kirby’s Fourth World ideas when they are trying to juice up some superhero title (Really? Darkseid AGAIN?) I was delighted to see some of the other fondly-remembered 1970s Kirby DC titles get a little love. Not to mention a couple of old Steve Ditko series I didn’t think anyone but me remembered at all.

Kamandi is one of the most awesome things Jack Kirby ever did (ask Alex Cox!) and it reads beautifully in this format. And I've been crabbing for years that after the success of the Vertigo SHADE, DC should have given us a collection of the Ditko originals... but never did I imagine they would be gathered in this handsome hardcover volume, especially with the four issues of STALKER included as a bonus.

And this is probably just me, but I was really, really stoked to see more of DC’s Showcase Presents volumes catch up to the stories I loved from the 1970s. My heart lies in the Bronze Age and always will. I can’t help it.

Of course, a lot of these stories have been reprinted to death, but you NEVER see the Frank Robbins Batman stories he did with Irv Novick and Bob Brown, or the great little 8-page Green Lantern backup stories from the 1970s FLASH, that are also included in these two books.

Which is not to say that I’m only jazzed about books full of old stuff. I’m really digging the new Aquaman, and — I’m the only one at CSBG to say this, probably– but I’m glad I took a chance on Mr. Terrific, as well, because I’m enjoying each issue more than the last. It’s turning into the kind of fight-evil-with-SCIENCE! book I’d hoped it would be, and the tone-deaf “relevant” racial stuff has faded. (It took a couple of months, but now the creators seem to understand that no one cares about Mr. Terrific’s politics– this is a book that should be about alien monsters and wild gadgets and strange new dimensions.)

Who has time for talking about race when you have shit like THIS to deal with??

Likewise, I wasn’t crazy about Fear Itself, but it’s dawned on me that overall, the superhero pendulum has swung from DC back to Marvel in our household. The vast majority of superhero books coming in here over the course of 2011 were from Marvel. They’re largely discount trade collections coming from Amazon, so I’m always a few months behind, but Marvel seems to understand that some of us like to read our comics that way and they have been much better than DC about getting their comics collected and out there as books every few months. I don’t know if they make any money doing it, because the hardcovers seem to be getting remaindered down to three and four bucks apiece within a few weeks of the initial release, but it’s sure working out great for me.

Best of all, along with their big ol’ across-the-universe Event Comics like Fear Itself or Siege or whatever, Marvel is also doing a lot of little mini-series that don’t tie in to anything, don’t require a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, and have proven to be tremendous fun. And often, in order to fill out the collected edition, they’ll throw in a reprint of the original story that inspired the new one, as a bonus.

LOVE. THESE.

This was also the year that the Marvel Essentials program finally started giving us some more non-spandex collections. This is the first time I’ve seen most of these, and you know, they’re pretty damn good.

These were both largely new to me and I instantly fell swooningly in love with them.

Honestly, looking back, despite all the hoopla about DC’s “New 52″ and everything that entailed, as far as superhero stuff is concerned I think 2011 really was Marvel’s year. Of course there’s Mark Waid’s wonderful new Daredevil book– that one’s too good to wait for, it’s the only Marvel book I get in single issues. But I also dug Spider-Man in both his standard and Ultimate incarnations, I’m interested in the FF again for the first time in years, and we closed out the year with possibly my favorite Marvel title of all time getting relaunched– with what looks like a new take on the Steve Gerber version of The Defenders I loved back in 1975. At least, the riffs on the “social misfits fight freaky supercrime” idea that aren’t already being incorporated into Secret Avengers.

The costumes may have changed, but the idea of a group of social losers fighting weird menaces is what I remember loving about THE DEFENDERS, and I think that is what Mr. Fraction is after here.

As far as what else Marvel did right in 2011… well… Do I really need to talk about how awesome the movies were? Especially the magnificence that was CAPTAIN AMERICA AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS?

I didn't think Chris Evans was much of an actor until I saw him channeling Steve Rogers. It was a note-perfect performance, as was Hugo Weaving's Red Skull.

At least that’s how I think of it. It was the Cap movie I’d been wanting all my life. (And can I just add how much I appreciated the total lack of cynicism the filmmakers brought to the endeavor? Steve Rogers becomes Captain America because he’s a good guy who cares about other people and wants to do the right thing. Not because They’ve Gone Too Far and This Time It’s Personal, or, praise God, because The Bad Guy Killed His Father.) I liked Thor and X-Men First Class well enough, but Captain America: The First Avenger was just brilliant.

Of course, there was lots of stuff that came out last year that didn’t happen to be published by Marvel or DC, that still left me grinning from ear to ear with sheer pleasure.

Fantagraphics is still the gold standard for classy newspaper strip collections. I’m afraid people are getting jaded now about how the wonderful Peanuts volumes are chugging right along year after year, but it’s worth pointing out that they continue to be everything anyone could ever want from an archive edition.

My wife Julie loves these and I gave her the set for her birthday years ago, with the promise that we'd keep up with it until it's complete. She enjoys a birthday gift that arrives twice a year for however many years it will take to get them all.

What’s more, Fantagraphics followed it up with these new Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse collections.

Apart from their historical value, these are beautiful books just as artifacts.

Speaking of comics and historical significance, TwoMorrows continues to document the industry with all sorts of terrific publications– from magazines like Back Issue and Alter Ego, to their series of Companion and Modern Masters books.

I'll have more to say about TwoMorrows in the coming weeks, but I wanted to be sure and mention them here because their books were a big part of the comics-related stuff I enjoyed in 2011.

Dark Horse continued to put out all sorts of terrific Robert E. Howard comics, both new and reprint– including reviving my favorite Howard-based title from the old days at Marvel, Savage Sword.

I hope Dark Horse keeps this license FOREVER.

And though it’s not strictly comics, the pulp-hero revival spearheaded by small-press outfits like Adventure House and Moonstone Publishing have provided both books reprinting classic material and books featuring new versions of those same characters, done with far more verve and style than DC’s plodding First Wave pulp-hero stuff was.

The Ranger AND the Spider. Of course I was in heaven.

In particular, I just can’t say enough good things about the Moonstone prose anthologies collecting short stories about characters like the Avenger, the Green Hornet, the Phantom, Captain Midnight, Zorro, and others.

The Green Hornet and Avenger books are my personal favorites but they're all good-- and I was thrilled to find that a new collection starring the Lone Ranger is on deck for 2012.

And finally, just on a personal level, 2011 was the year when I got to see a bunch of former students from my cartooning classes take wing and start doing pro work on their own.

File these under graduate studies. On the left is one of Lindon's greeting cards she'll be selling at the Emerald City Con; on the right is Katrina filming a scene for the independent film she's been working on for the last few weeks.

With all that to put in the plus column, hell, I just can’t work up a good internet comics-blogger rage no matter how much I might have loathed, say, Red Hood and the Outlaws. Life’s too short.

So here’s to a great 2012, everyone…. and I’ll see you next week.

10 Comments

Interesting sidebar:

“The Cassandra Cain Batgirl was a character people seemed to like; her first book ran 73 issues, making her the most successful Batgirl in comics to date”.

Had no other holder of the codename ever had her solo own series prior to that? Did Cain not receive her solo title till around 2001?

I find this intriguing to compare and contrast, since Supergirl had her own series from 1972 to 1974, and then around 1982 to 1984.

Come to think of it, Robin did not receive his own solo title till 1993, while Jimmy Olsen had his own solo title circa 1954.

http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?t=392024&page=9

“Many people like to think that SUPERMAN and BATMAN have been of near equal stature since their debuts in the late 1930′s. But prior to the Adam West TV series, Batman was in a very distant second place to Superman. In fact, during the 1940′s, Batman was in a distant third place behind rivals Superman & Captain Marvel. By the 1950′s, Superman was the star of a long running radio show and a long running newspaper strip. He also had appeared in several innovative theatrical cartoons in the early 40′s. Batman on the other hand, had only guest started in a handful of episodes of the Superman radio show, his newspaper strip only lasted a few years and he hadn’t made the jump to cartoons”.

“Batman even outsold Superman for a while [during the Adam West era], something it wouldn’t do again [regularly] until the 1990s”. From Alter Ego article

Thanks for doing a column about all the POSITIVE stuff you saw this year, Greg. It can be really easy to be lost in the internet snark sometimes.

I do disagree with you on one small point, however — I do think the Captain America movie showed a bit of cynicism by insulting the original Simon-Kirby costume in the movie in favor of the overly detailed Ultimates-esque thing he wore. All the fans I heard defending it kept claiming that original costume just wasn’t “realistic” enough. Because apparently “realism” was a huge priority for the movie with the Red Skull, death rays, floating cars, super-soldier serums and racially-integrated troops in WWII.

And yes, I realize the irony of me going into a mini-fanboy rant right after I praised Greg for keeping it positive, so you don’t really have to point it out to me. Thanks. :)

Yeah, virtually all the major Marvel franchises seem to be heading in the right direction. If DC builds up another year of momentum–especially Morrison’s Action Comics, which has gotten off to a slow start–hopefully the books that are enjoyable now will have matured into really engaging ongoing stories to rival some of Marvel’s output.

As a guy who is new to Conan, do you guys think it would be better for me to read the original Robert E. Howard stories first or the reprints of the Marvel comic first?

As a guy who is new to Conan, do you guys think it would be better for me to read the original Robert E. Howard stories first or the reprints of the Marvel comic first?

Well, *I* came to it through the comics… but really, if I am honest, I think you’d probably do better to pick up one of the books; that’s the pure stuff. My picks for the very best of the original Howard Conan stories, oddly enough, are almost all contained in this particular collection, especially the one it’s named for.

EDITED TO ADD: I have been reminded that there is a nice NEW anthology that was released in conjunction with the Jason Momoa movie… saw it on the Barnes & Noble remainder table shortly before Christmas. Here it is. And here’s another one that’s a little classier. Any of those are what I’d consider to be nice sampler ‘greatest hits’ Conan collections.

Some awesome points and great use of cover visuals to enhance what you’re trying to communicate!

Specifically with regards to DC, the BRIGHTEST DAY series set up a bunch of characters for solo books and yet AQUAMAN (and a lesser extent HAWK & DOVE- but you ain’t gonna get me to buy that nohow!) is the only one to have followed the progression…The Hawks, Martian Manhunter, Firestorm, Captain Atom & Blue Beetle have all started over at Square 1 and as a result I have lost all emotional or financial investment in their New 52 books. Same with BATGIRL for the reasons you pointed out.

Oh well, at least I have AQUAMAN to make me a happy reader!

ohn Trumbull
January 7, 2012 at 7:59 am

“I do disagree with you on one small point, however — I do think the Captain America movie showed a bit of cynicism by insulting the original Simon-Kirby costume in the movie in favor of the overly detailed Ultimates-esque thing he wore. All the fans I heard defending it kept claiming that original costume just wasn’t “realistic” enough. Because apparently “realism” was a huge priority for the movie with the Red Skull, death rays, floating cars, super-soldier serums and racially-integrated troops in WWII”.

Well, Lucas had actual magic in the Indiana Jones films, even though those mostly take place during the 1930?s.

Anyone correct me if I have this wrong, but not even Doc Savage encountered actual magic in his 1930?s and 1940?s published prose adventures, right? I find it interesting that all of the Indiana Jones movies involved the paranormal, since injecting that into an adventure story that takes place in an industrialized 20th (or 21st) century often seems to many people silly and childish.

However, evidently this use of magic somehow legitimized the paranormal in WWII era adventures, but not costumes.

Roquefort Raider

January 9, 2012 at 8:16 am

For prospective readers of R. E. Howard’s original Conan tales, there is a lot of choice today since the stories recently fell in the public domain in many countries. For my money, the best editions currently available are the following:

The Coming of Conan

The Bloody Crown of Conan

The Conquering Sword of Conan

Not only are all the stories there in their original forms, but we also get all the unfinished drafts (many of which were later the basis for pastiches or for adaptations by Roy Thomas in the Marvel books). They’re also brilliantly illustrated by people like Mark Schultz, Greg Manchess and Gary Gianni.

Ed (A Different One)

January 9, 2012 at 10:23 am

Yeah, that’s right, didn’t DC have the whole Blackest Night/Brightest Day thing going on not all that long ago? I’m not the biggest DC follower out there, but it is weird to think that all (or nearly all) of that has just pretty much been jettisoned out the window in the wake of the DCNU 52. Seemed like there was a lot of promising stuff coming out of that as well.

It’s like an “Event Pileup” on the DC Expressway . . .

Was Blackest Night/Brightest Day considered a failure then?

Meanwhile, there are some “quiet” books that I’m really enjoying at Marvel that seem to be gathering steam. While Daredevil and Uncanny X-Force have gotten some well deserve pub and are no longer in the “best kept secrets” category, I’d rank Journey Into Mystery and Venom right up there with them. And I was as pleasantly surprised (no, make that downright tickled) by Spider-Island as I was by anything this past year (just not used to expecting much from Spidey cross-over storylines). I just hope Marvel doesn’t have a knee jerk reaction to the NU 52′s success and have a similar relaunch that wipes out the momentum these books have been steadily building over the last year.

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