Category Archives: Comics

Religion, acting, monsters and birds of prey: books read

THE FOURTH R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools by Joan DelFattore is, as I recalled, an excellent history of the subject, starting in the 19th century when Catholics began agitating against Protestant prayers and King James readings, while baffled Protestants insisted there was absolutely nothing sectarian about all that, it was just that making kids Protestant made them more America. Then follows court case after court case, which contrary to right-wing myth almost never involved atheists (more often it was Jews, Catholics, agnostics or minority sects) and definitely did not “kick God out of the schools.” DelFattore does a great job showing how the “pro” and “anti” sides often disagree among themselves, which has repeatedly derailed efforts to restore school prayer (moderates locking horns with those who think mandatory school prayer is perfectly reasonable and unobjectionable). Well done.

AN ACTOR’S WAYS AND MEANS was a print collection of several lectures Michael Redgrave gave to an acting school, which as he notes means a presentation targeted to aspiring professionals now goes to a much wider audience. Redgrave tackles questions that go back at least to Diderot as to whether the superior actor is driven by feeling or reason, whether the chameleonic actor is better than one who plays the same personality and when an actor can feel they’ve mastered their craft and whether we should take Hamlet’s advice to the players seriously. Even though I haven’t done any theater since the move to Durham, quite interesting, and I find myself debating whether some of his points can be applied to writing (I may come back to that in a later post). In any case as this was Mum’s copy from when she was 20 I’ll hang on to it.

THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST by Rick Yancey is the first in a series about a 19th century crytozoologist told from the POV of his twelve year old servant, Will. I’d thought this would be more in the urban fantasy vein but it’s more horror and didn’t really work for me; the opening scenes are bizarrely creepy, but after that the anthropophagi might as well be the monsters from Alien (they’re tough, they’re scary, they eat people). And the mentor/protagonist relationship seems kind of abusive, even given the danger of their calling. I gave up on this about halfway through.

BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY: Full Circle by Julie and Shawna Benson, Roge Antonio and Marcio Takara has Batgirl and her team (and a lot of female costars) coping with their old foe the Calculator, a disease that sickens men and Huntress’ long-lost mother. This was entertaining enough, but something about the lettering or the art or the number of word balloons made it feel too cluttered to enjoy reading as much as I should have.

And while it’s not part of anything I read this week, I’ll wrap up by sharing this striking Jack Kirby splash page from Fantastic Four.

#SFWApro.

 

 

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Technicolor, immortals, a princess and superheroes: books and graphic novels

I knew the word “technicolor” in my teens but vaguely thought of it as meaning just in color, instead of black and white; GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR: The Movies’ Magic Rainbow by Fred Basten explains why Technicolor was once a name and a company to conjure with. While some movie makers had been interested in filming in color even back in the silent days, the tech just wasn’t there. The Technicolor company developed the first color movie that was anywhere close to visually satisfying, then went on to refine their process until we got the vibrant colors of films such as The Wizard of Oz. This required not only overcoming technical challenges but uncertainty about whether there was enough public interest to justify the money, and makeup and set decorating professionals who weren’t sure how to work in this medium (several female stars resisted doing color films because they’d got their B&W look perfect). Interesting.

NO LESS DAYS by Amanda G. Stevens is a Christian fantasy about David, an immortal (with unusual restraint he’s less than two centuries old) bookstore owner who witnesses a YouTube daredevil surviving an apparently fatal stunt — is it possible he’s also unkillable? It turns out the daredevil is indeed another longevite, but David now has to deal with one of the others killing to protect their secret; whether to share the truth with the woman he’s fallen in love with; and how his immortality can possibly fit into God’s design. This is a warm, non-judgmental Christian fantasy (and after so many evangelicals endorsed Brett Kavanaugh it’s nice that Stevens takes consent and abuse issues seriously) but after the intriguing opening it slowed down and got way too talky to old me.

PRINCELESS: Make Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and multiple artists has Princess Adrienne continuing her efforts to rescue her sisters (all locked in towers by Dad until handsome princes can rescue them) while dealing with issues including her kinky hair, other characters’ same-sex relationships, and dwarven gender roles. This didn’t hold me as well as other volumes, partly because it’s been so long since I read one (I don’t remember the characters in one subplot at all) and it’s a bit heavy on Social Issues For Younger Readers. However I really loved that when Adrienne’s dwarven sidekick tells her grandfather she’s become a smith in defiance of dwarf tradition, he’s cool with it (it’s really amazingly rare to have fantasy characters bend on proper gender roles).

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: Family Business by Mark Waid, James Robinson and Gabriele Dell’Otto has a woman who claims to be Peter’s long-lost sister recruit him to wrap up one of their CIA parents’ last missions, involving a stockpile of Nazi gold guarded by a mecha. This is good fun, though the sibling angle is obviously a ruse (not the first time, either — a supposed sister turns up in the Revenge of the Sinister Six novel trilogy).

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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From female mages to the Flash: books read

SISTERS OF THE RAVEN by Barbara Hambly succeeds where I thought the overrated The Power  failed: the opening sequence alone in which Rashaelda has to hide from a killer and realizes none of the men nearby bothered to intervene, is chilling. Rashaelda is one of several women who’ve acquired magical power just as the men of their desert kingdom are losing theirs. Men, even non-magical men, resent the change, and the women are struggling to prove themselves against a deadly drought and political upheaval. I’d have liked this better if it focused more on the gender dynamics, which get lost as the other plotlines amp up, but I still liked this a lot.

HOUSE OF HADES: Heroes of Olympus, Book Four by Rick Riordan is my first exposure to his wildly popular Percy Jackson mythos about Olympian demigods living among us. Riordan makes it easy to follow who’s who and what the goal is (reach Hades’ temple and shut the gateway allowing Gaia to flood the world with monsters) and he’s certainly a good writer. However this is more a series installment than a standalone novel — the battle isn’t decisive, most of the character arcs are in motion — so it didn’t convert me to a fan of the mythos.

Still, Riordan did much better handling eight books of backstory than Sherrilyn Kenyon did with DEATH DOESN’T BARGAIN: A Deadman’s Cross Novel which is only book two (that may be because, according to this review, it’s part of a much larger mythos). It starts off with an interminable discussion of who’s allied to who against what, with the speakers each having a couple of different names…it’s like a textbook example of how not to hook readers (though apparently lots of people were). After about a hundred pages, it still seemed to be characters rehashing the first book’s backstory, so I gave up.

The main plotline of FLASH: Cold Day in Hell by Joshua Williamson, Michael Moreci and multiple artists is that Flash’s Rogues, led by Captain Cold, have turned the Iron Heights prison into the basis of a crime empire; fortunately Barry’s been assigned to handle the prison’s evidence locker, so when one of the Rogues is murdered, Flash is instantly on the case. There’s also a two-parter involving an evil speedster and one with pre-New 52 Wally West trying to figure out his role in the new DC. The writing isn’t bad, it’s just not terribly interesting. Partly because this is just not my Flash: the New 52’s Negative Speed Force, Wally no longer married to Linda (I love her as a love interest, but apparently nobody since Geoff Johns’ run on Flash has any interest in her), Barry and Wally and New 52 Wally all crowding into Central City, Barry haunted by his mother’s murder (works fine on the TV show, but it’s gratuitous in the books) … it leaves me cold.

#SFWApro. Image is Hades and Persephone, fresco in the tomb called “Eurydice”, Vergina, Greece. Public domain, courtesy of wikimedia.

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Wonder Woman: 300 and Counting

When Roy Thomas and Gene Colan jumped from Marvel to DC in 1982, it was a big honking deal. Particularly Thomas: he’d been the first of a new generation of young fans-turned-writers to go to work for Marvel (after a week at DC), written pretty much every book at some point, and seemed as truly Marvel as Stan Lee. But he’d had some disputes with Marvel, and they became frustrating enough he headed to the competition. And one of the first books he wrote was Wonder Woman.

Following Gerry Conway’s departure, we had one forgettable fill-in by Robert Kanigher and a Marv Wolfman one-shot teaming Diana up with his creation, the new incarnation of the Teen Titans. This was noteworthy if only for returning Dr. Cyber and giving her the armored costume she’s worn ever since.

Then came a promotional insert, a Wonder Woman story in DC Comics Presents introducing readers to WW’s new creative team. With WW #288, the regular series launched. Thomas departed the book a year later (and that year included a three-part story by Dan Mishkin) but it was a good year.

Thomas gave us the Earth-One version of Dr. Psycho, though less misogynist than the Golden Age original: rather than enslave them, he simply wants to have one of his own. Tapping into Steve Trevor’s fantasies about Diana and his wishes to be her equal, Psycho (an Ellis Island change to his ancestral name of Psychogenos) creates “Captain Wonder,” a superhuman form for himself to occupy.

Another foe was the Silver Swan, a gifted but unattractive dancer whose career was frustrated by lookism. Ares reveals to her that she’s the distant descendant of Helen of Troy; he transforms her into the Helen-class beauty Silver Swan (Helen’s mother was a swan. Look it up) in return for helping her launch the world into war. It’s sexist (it comes off less as a critique of beauty standards and more OMG I’ll Do Anything To Be Pretty) but the mythological origin makes her more interesting to me than the later Perez reboot. This arc also shows General Darnell, Diana Prince’s superior, as a creepy sexual harasser, rather than just a pushy suitor as Conway wrote him.

A subsequent story, originally intended as a miniseries, has Wonder Woman and an assortment of DC superheroines (Supergirl, Zatanna, Raven, Madame Xanadu) try to stop a cosmic entity from pronouncing sentence upon the Earth. It’s an old concept, but well executed.

Another three parter pitted Wonder Woman against General Electric, a Sandman foe. No, not Gaiman’s Sandman, nor the Wesley Dodds Golden Age character but a short-lived Bronze Age superhero (sufficiently obscure I’ll blog about him at some point).

Then came the Dan Mishkin three-parter, pitting Wonder Woman against Aegeus, a terrorist getting magical help from the renegade Greek hero Bellerophon (this was the first story to refer to Themiscyra, identified as the Amazons original home in the Aegean). Mishkin became the regular writer on the book but not before Thomas returned for #300. In this one, the Bronze Age Sandman shows up to help Wonder Woman against mysterious nightmare creatures. Complicating things is that she keeps collapsing into sleep and imagining alternate versions of her history: what if she’d stayed on Paradise Island? What if Steve were as bad as Amazons expect men to be? What if a kryptonite weakened Superman had landed instead of Steve (showing how long people have seen Clark and Diana as a potential couple — though it didn’t work out)?

The anniversary issue also deals with the Steve/Wonder Woman/Diana Prince relationship. It ends with Steve and Wonder Woman — well, it sure looks like Wonder Woman might not have been as virginal back then as people assume.

Dan Mishkin’s run on the book was good too, and lasted until the Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted her. I’ll post about that in a few months.

#SFWApro. Covers by Gene Colan (top) and Rich Buckler. All rights remain with current holders.

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From super-hero teams to bees: graphic novels and books read

THE SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY ARCHIVE by multiple writers and artistscollects the first four issues of Leading Comics, which introduced comics’ second superhero team after the Justice Society (despite the JSA’s success, Marvel’s flop All-Winners Squad was the only other attempt at a super-team back in the Golden Age). Seven of DC’s second-stringers (Green Arrow and Speedy, Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, Vigilante, Crimson Avenger and the Shining Knight, plus a couple of their sidekicks) take on the Hand, the Black Star, Dr. Doome and the Sixth Sense in different stories. Hardly the best of the Golden Age, but enjoyable, more than some JSA stories; the Sixth Sense story is tricky enough to be really good (no surprise it was written by Batman co-creator Bill Finger).

JUSTICE LEAGUE: The People vs. the Justice League has Christopher Priest (best known for his excellent Black Panther run) riding his usual hobbyhorses about how superheroes are kind of silly and just wouldn’t work in the real world and should probably be laughed at (exceptions being the few characters he likes, like T’Challa). Unfortunately this story of the League massively screwing up and people asking Hard Questions about whether Earth can allow unauthorized vigilantes running around only plows a field countless other writers have already farmed — and as I’ve complained before, this kind of thing is just meaningless posing as it won’t change anything. Art by Pete Woods.

THE CASTOFFS: Mage Against the Machine by MK Reed, Brian Smith, Molly Ostertag and Wyeth Yates, is a competent fantasy adventure (Y/A, so in fairness I’m not the target audience) in which three female mages must travel across a post-apocalyptic wasteland dominated by hostile mecha. Nothing really new, but enjoyable enough.

KIM REAPER: Grim Beginnings is a fantasy rom-com by Sarah Graley that happened to suit my mood perfectly. College student Becka crushes madly on Goth classmate Kim, only to discover Kim’s part-time job is claiming souls for Death (he has to hire extra help). Can she convince Kim a job in retail would be just as good? Can Kim convince Becka they’ll work as a couple even though she walks around with a scythe? Fluff, but enjoyable fluff.

PLASTIC MAN ARCHIVES Vol.2 shows writer/artist Jack Cole improving steadily from Vol. 1 , as the delightful splash page below demonstrates. And so does Plas launching his own magazine (#1 is included in this volume), as solo books were strictly for A-listers back then. Cole’s humor is often very black as in The Game of Death or The Eyes Have It (a remarkably dark story involving an orphaned child and some child murdering fiends), but he can turn in a comedy detective story (The Rare Edition Murders) or just be gloriously silly. A pleasure to reread.

ROBBING THE BEES: A Biography of Honey, the Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World by Holley Bishop, is one of the few pop-science books where adding personal anecdotal touches actually works for me. Mixed in with a history of beekeeping, honey and beeswax Bishop includes her personal experiences as an amateur beekeeper and a year spent hanging with a professional in the Florida Panhandle (in a town so small it’s really surprising to see it mentioned in print). Informative and like Thief at the End of the World it makes me appreciate how incredibly important honey used to be in the world.

 

#SFWApro. Top image by Mort Meskin, bottom by Jack Cole, all rights remain with current holders.

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A fighting Brit, a fighting American, Scooby-Doo and more: TPBs read

Following Captain Britain: Siege of Camelot, I picked up the character again with CAPTAIN BRITAIN, an older TPB collecting the Alan Moore/Alan Davis run (I’m missing about a half-dozen stories in between because that TPB is out of my price range). We open on Brian in a parallel world where he abruptly shifts from conventional crimefighting to battling the unstoppable superhero-killing Fury and its creator, the reality-warping mutant Sir James Jaspers. This is only the beginning of a string of weird encounters, deaths and rebirths overwhelming England’s champion (as Davis notes in the intro, he often comes off as a bemused straight man) before facing the ultimate challenge: the main Marvel Earth’s version of Mad Jim Jaspers. A good run, obviously of interest as some of both creators’ early work.

After Marvel revived Captain America in the 1950s, Cap-creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby decided to prove they could outdo whoever Marvel had working on the strip. Sure enough, Prize Comics’ FIGHTING AMERICAN (not “the” Fighting American) outlasted 1950s Cap by several issues, despite an insanely convoluted origin: after Red agents kill anti-Communist TV newsman Johnny Flagg (saddled with two bum legs due to his heroic service in Korea), the government transfers his nerdy brother Nelson’s mind into Flagg’s body, which is then restored to peak condition via a super-soldier treatment. That enables Johnny/Nelson (and Speedboy, who apparently had no other name even in his secret identity) to become Fighting American, scourge of America’s enemies. This wasn’t the duo’s best work but as it goes along they do give the series a decidedly goofy sense of humor, with villains such as propagandist Poison Ivan or a Soviet spy whose super-power is his deadly body odor. Fun, but it won’t displace Captain America in anyone’s estimation.

SCOOBY-DOO TEAM-UP by Sholly Fisch and Dario Brizuela is an absolute delight, with way more in-jokes from Scooby’s cartoons than I could possibly mention. After reuniting with Batman (Scooby-Doo switched to a team-up format for the 1972 TV season) they also meet the Super-Friends and the Teen Titans Go! version of the Titans, yanking masks of villains’ faces and proving that even in the DC universe they have a role to play. Great fun, assuming you like Scooby-Doo.

Fisch also wrote BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND BOLD: Small Miracles, with Rick Burchett and Dan Davis providing the art chores. Based on the cartoon series, this has Batman teaming up with Ragman, Nightwing and Silver Age swinger Super-Hip (against the Teen Titans Go version of the Mad Mod); if you know the show or the earlier TPB collections, you know what to expect.

 

Following Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s next memoir looked at her mother and their relationship. Unfortunately ARE YOU MY MOTHER? lacks the punch of Fun Home, not just because there’s nothing as dramatic but because it’s very, very internalized — lots of rumination on Bechdel’s psychotherapy, her dreams and her relationships. Way too much navel-gazing for me.

In 1932, in-between Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, Groucho and Chico Marx appeared in a short-lived radio show (obviously Harpo’s mute shticks wouldn’t work well on radio). FLYWHEEL, SHYSTER AND FLYWHEEL: The Marx Brothers’ Lost Radio Show by Michael Barson collects the surviving scripts from the show (the productions themselves are lost), telling the story of scheming, wisecracking lawyer Flywheel (originally Beagle, but a real attorney named Beagle threatened to sue) and his nitwitted assistant Ravelli. The early episodes are really funny, and it’s easy to imagine the brothers delivering their lines. As the show goes along, though, the writers (in an interview included in the book they say writing a script a week became a real struggle) began recycling material or borrowing from the films and the show starts to lose steam. It’s probably telling that they stop worrying about Flywheel’s legal practice and simply have the guys vacationing wherever they want to set the story (Canada, a fancy mansion, etc.). Barson says the show actually had decent ratings, and guesses that the sponsor (Esso, a gasoline company) was frustrated because Texaco’s radio show did better.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jack Kirby and Robert Oksner (top and bottom) all rights remain with current holders.

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Batman and Robin: The somewhat early years

Some years back, I was a fan of the Batman Chronicles series which reprinted Batman’s adventures in chronological order, regardless of which comic book (Detective Comics, World’s Finest, Batman) they were in. Unfortunately that series stopped with the early 1943 issues. Now, however, BATMAN OMNIBUS Vol. 3 (which my sister bought me for my birthday this year) covers the last three Chronicles and then goes on (later volumes are now up to 1936) through late 1944.

By this point, much of Batman’s style and tone are set. The close bond between the Dynamic Duo, the Rogue’s Gallery, deathtraps and quick quips. Colorful crimes with the Joker and the Penguin. Bill Finger’s stories, often structured around some kind of interesting, nerdy detail, like the linemens’ lives in Kilowatt Cowboys. There were still changes and additions, most notably Alfred. Debuting in Batman #16, he was the son of Bruce’s father’s butler, who’d rejected the family tradition of domestic service for life on the stage. But his dying father had charged him to return to the fold, find Bruce and butle for him. By the end of the first story, the rather buffoonish Alfred has stumbled into their identities; he’d become more competent and trustworthy over time, though his solo stories were usually comic relief. He started plump but after the 1943 Batman serial showed him skinny, the comic-book Alfred went to a health spa.

There were new additions to the villain roster. The eccentric twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee were fun; the flamboyant collector the Cavalier never quite clicked with me but they obviously thought him noteworthy (his first stories actually form an arc, which is unusual for that era).

As it’s WW II, there are lots of moral boosting stories ranging from Batman and Robin busting spies to reminders about the importance of buying war bonds. Several stories focus on particular specialist cops, such as the Harbor Patrol; two or three employ the idea of an elderly expert (on Batman, on medieval history) duped by crooks into using their knowledge for evil. One that would pay off down the road was the introduction of Professor Carter Nichols in #24. Using hypnosis, he somehow projects Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson’s minds back into the past, where they would, of course, wind up adventuring as Batman and Robin (the implication is they actually materialize in ancient Rome — it’s not just imagination). Nichols wouldn’t appear for another couple of years but he’d rack up almost a score of appearances by 1953.

Obviously the merits of this book depend on how much you like Golden Age Batman. I do, so I’ve already bought the next volume (it’ll be a while before I finish it though). If you do too, it might be worth it.

#SFWApro. covers by Jerry Robinson, all rights remain with current holder.

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Weird for weird’s sake: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol

I love the Silver Age Doom Patrol. I love Grant Morrison’s 1980s reboot for entirely different reasons.

The Arnold Drake/Bruno Premiani Doom Patrol had great stories and exceptional characterization; they’re DC done Marvel style but better than a lot of Marvel at the time. The series finish (one of many cancelled as the Silver Age reached its end) was exceptional too. Trapped by their enemies the team are given a choice: either they blow up or a worthless fishing village holding fourteen people blows up. They choose option A.

A decde later, DC revived the series in the tryout book Showcase, bounced them around as guest-stars, then gave them their own series in 1987. They might not have bothered; while drawing on the history of the original (and bringing back a couple of character) the series was generic. The characters weren’t freaks or misfits, they were just another mostly-teen team in the vein of Chris Claremont’s X-Men or the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans. Then in 1989 Grant Morrison took over.

Morrison has said he found the original series mindblowingly weird compared to other books; his goal was to up the weirdness. He succeeded.

Along with the Chief, Robotman and Joshua Clay (a holdover from the revival series) we had new members such as Crazy Jane (64 personalities, 64 metapowers) and Rebis (Negative Man in Larry Trainor’s body … fused with a woman). And the adventures were several times weirder. Battles against the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., who use toys from Silver Age comics ads as weapons. Danny the Street, a literal living transvestite street. A sorcerer trapping a group of monsters inside a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses. A painting that holds the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. An encounter with a warped version of Yankee Doodle, a Silver Age hero who got a cover design (intended for Showcase) but his story never came out.

Or the Brotherhood of Dada, dedicated to utter meaninglessness, driving America insane with a bicycle saturated with LSD energy. Or throwaway details such as the Dresden Madonna (it bleeds sour milk from its stigmata every 28 days) and the homonculi known as the Dead Bachelors, composed of old skin cells and animated by the pain in discarded love letters. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I love weird, and Morrison delivered in spades.

Of course it wasn’t all roses (well, insane roses). For all the weirdness, the Brotherhood of Dada’s second plotline turns into a cliched political-outsider satire. The Chief turns out to be a complete villain at the end, a twist I never thought worked. But overall, it was a spectacular run.

Rachel Pollack took over when Morrison left and tried to keep the weirdness going. Her take didn’t work for me, but at least she tried. Subsequent writers including John Byrne and Geoff Johns just reverted to the Silver Age team with a few additions and handwaved the Chief. The results are invariably bland and disappointing. The exception being Gerard Way’s 2017 series, which follows in the Morrison vein very well.

#SFWApro. Covers by (top to bottom) Bruno Premiani, Richard Case, Mike Sekowsky; all rights remain with current holder.

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Superman (But We’re Afraid to Ask)

Back in the 1970s, comics writer Michael Fleischer launched a series of encyclopedias about Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and other heroes. Unfortunately sales apparently weren’t good enough, so the series stopped after Superman (I’m not sure we’d have gotten that one if not for the first Chris Reeve movie coming out.

Fleischer’s books are a great resource I still have on my shelf, but he only covers stories through the mid-sixties. I was delighted to pick up a bargain copy of  THE ESSENTIAL SUPERMAN ENCYCLOPEDIA by Robert Greenberger and Martin Pasko which covers the 50 years since. If you’ve ever wondered “Did I just imagine Superman battled a villain called the Purple Piledriver?” or “What was the radioactive material that killed Hyperman?” this is the book with the answers. It’s also better written than a number of online sources with the same information. It’s an impressive job considering that in addition to sheer volume, the authors have to take into account the existence of Earth One, Earth Two, etc. and the repeated reboots from Crisis on Infinite Earths onwards (Lucky for Greenberger and Pasko they came out before Flashpoint).

As I’ve skimmed a lot of Superman stories in the 21st century, this book made it easy to catch up on all the pre-Flashpoint stuff, such as when General Zod and a bunch of Kryptonian survivors founded a New Krypton on the far side of the sun. The list of Supergirl reboots and re-interpretations confirms my feeling that it’s been a long while since anyone knew what to do with her. Post-Crisis, Peter David’s reboot making her an earthbound angel was the last time they had a sure handle on her, and the last time any version lasted more than a couple of years (of course it’s not like they didn’t do a lot of soft reboots pre-Crisis).

On the other hand, Superman’s Golden Age foe the Ultra-Humanite got his “definitive” version back in 1981 when he had his brain transferred to a gorilla’s body. He’s been rebooted a few times since, but the writers invariably default to the gorilla look.

THE SUPERMAN ENCYCLOPEDIA also shows how confused you can get when you have multiple hands writing something and no story Bible. Smallville has been placed in a half-dozen Kansas counties, for instance (and this after John Byrne’s reboot supposedly tidied up continuity) and once in Maryland. And despite being a small town of only a few thousand residents, it boasts not only a Smallville Museum but a war museum, a natural history museum, a museum of the occult, an aviation museum and a Grecian Museum. Presumably whatever sort of museum a particular story called for. Admittedly this is nothing surprising to anyone who’s been reading comics as long as me, but it’s still a jolt when it’s all put together like this.

Obviously this is a specialty book, but if Superman history is a specialty that appears to you, it’s worth getting.

#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by  Curt Swan, Al Plastino and George Perez. All rights remain with current holder.

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Black Hammer and the ends of heroic ages

One of the Atomic Junkshop reviewers recommended Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston to me; as the library had V2, The Event, I picked it up. It was probably a better intro than the first volume, Secret Origins.

The premise of the series is that after an epic battle between Spiral City’s superheroes and the world-ending Anti-God, a half-dozen heroes — Black Hammer, Abe Slam, Golden Gail, Barbalien, Madame Dragonfly and Colonel Weird (all recognizable as pastiches — Black Hammer is a hybrid of Thor and the New Gods’ Orion, Barbalien is the Martian Manhunter and so forth) — wake up in the small village of Rockford. They can’t seem to leave (Black Hammer dies when he tries) and have to get along as best they can, posing as ordinary people. It’s particularly rough on Gail, a 50something woman now trapped in her nine-year-old superhero form. At the end of the first book Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy arrives, and some of what’s going on becomes obvious. In the second volume, The Event, we explore Rockford in more detail and things get more interesting. To date there’s also a spinoff, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil, which looks at how Lucy wound up there.

Overall it’s a fun series, even if the riffing on established character types gets heavyhanded at times. But it got me thinking how often in the past two decades we’ve seen this sort of thing.

It started, as far as I remember, with Kingdom Come about 22 years ago. The Age of Heroes has become the Age of Super-Powered Showoffs Throwing Buses At Each Other (to paraphrase the creators); can the older heroes return in time to put things right.

Marvel’s Earth X and its sequels likewise showed the Marvel Universe sliding into its dotage. Then came Terra Obscura, a spinoff of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong in which a parallel world’s superheroes are freed from captivity after forty years and the world has to deal. Albion similarly assumes the superhumans and adventurers of British 1960s comics have all been locked away. Project Superpowers took many of the same characters as Terra Obscura, sealed away in Pandora’s Box in a misguided attempt to seal up evil (because they’re the hope that was also in the box). Now they’re out, facing a world that’s grown much worse without them. And there’s at least one more I don’t quite remember.

I’ve seen lots of other stories showing superheroes in the future, but without assuming a collapse of some sort; Gerry Conway’s Last Days of Animal Man, for instance, looks 10 or 15 years down the road, but assumes superheroes are still going strong. In the Spider-Girl series, everyone’s older, but the new Fantastic Five and the new Avengers are just as heroic as their predecessors. So Heroes in Decline isn’t automatic when writers look to tomorrow.

I suppose it could just be that everyone wants to knock off the critically acclaimed Kingdom Come. But I wonder if it also doesn’t reflect the aging of the superhero genre and its fans. It’s easy if you’re a long-time fan to feel the best years of the genre are behind you; Mark Waid and Alex Ross were quite upfront that Kingdom Come represented their take on 1990s superheroes and how they’d fallen from the Silver Age. It may also reflect, as Eric C. Flint puts it, that longtime fans want more than an entertaining story. They want metacommentary and deconstruction, and stories like these tend very much that way.

Regardless, Black Hammer is worth picking up. Though if I’d read V1 first, I don’t know I’d have been interested enough to try V2.

#SFWApro. Cover by Ormston, all rights remain with current holder.

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