Axel-In-Charge: Unmasking the "Totally Awesome Hulk"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
What’s more, Fantagraphics followed it up with these new Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse collections.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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