Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
September 2010

We Don't Joke About Blue Tights Round Here.

JLA Volume 1 (DC 2008), Avengers Assemble vol. 1 (Marvel 2010)

[Caveat to the reader: Do you remember the Shel Silverstein poem about the goat? "I wrote such a beautiful book for you/'Bout rainbows and sunshine and dreams that come true…" and then the goat proceeds to eat the book, so Shel writes us another one fast as he can, and if you don't like the book he just wrote, blame the goat.

Well, folks, I've already written this article once, and then some jerk stole my laptop out of my car. So if you don't like this article, blame the jerk. Also, stomp on his pinkies and give him rabies.]

To understand ourselves, we must understand our past. Our follies and foibles. Our wars and not-quite wars. Words like "whoopee-cat" and why it was acceptable in the '70s to call your lover "mama" or "daddy."

So hop once more into the Miraculous Pictographicus Time Machine and head back to the barbaric, Usenet days of the '90s. Set your flux capacitor and hold on!

Here we are in 1996. Bush has left the Oval Office. The economy sucks, but it might be on the mend. Wait . . . are you sure you set the flux capacitor?

While we're here, let's hit the local comic shop, a fixture of the '90s, and pick up some comics for two bucks a pop. Hmm . . . the yellow pages said there was a shop here, and it's closed. And there was supposed to be one here . . . What's going on? The economy actually is getting better, as we know, heading toward The Brief Golden Age of That Guy Who Did the Intern.

It seems that something . . . horrible happened.

Around 1989, some dudes in suits figured out that old comics were worth a lot of money. Anyone who managed to hold on to Spider-Man #1, or Fantastic Four #1, or, if they were really lucky and really old, Action Comics #1, was cleaning up, to the tune of tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars. The suits began investing in the comic companies on Wall Street and grabbing copies of whatever "hot" comic came out that week on their way home.

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The comic companies responded like a fire hydrant, pumping out dozens of new titles each month and hundreds of new titles each year, selling well into the millions. Comics came polybagged with special "collector's item rare" trading cards, or their covers came foil-embossed or fold-out.

For the most part, the comics sucked. Pale imitations of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the collective comics of the early '90s were overfilled with grit and gloom, shooting and tooth-clenching and so little substance as to make a Twinkie seem nutritious. And there were tons of them. Do you remember Spawn? Maybe. How about Shadowhawk, Pitt, Ninjak, The Darkness, Youngblood, or WildC.A.T.S. (Covert Action Teams)? Nomad, X, Hero Zero, Stormwatch, Hard Case, Mantra, Sludge, Solitaire, Night Thrasher, Hardware, Icon or Blood Syndicate? Freak Force, Brigade, Prophet, Darkhold, or Darkstars? Wait, wait, we haven't even touched on Valiant Comics or Lightning Comics or Defiant Comics or . . .

The big-hero stories were gimmicks too, for the most part. DC killed Superman (he got better) and broke Batman's spine (he also got better). Wolverine and Spider-Man galumphed across a dozen titles, chasing villains that were increasingly psycho and stories that made increasingly less sense.

Here's a quiz for any budding economists out there: what makes something a rare collector's item? Could it be . . . rarity?

Those old comics are worth what they are because so many of them have vanished over the years, between WWII paper shortages, Fredric Wortham's comic burnings, and plenty of righteous maternal crusaders tossing it out once the owners went off to college.

Sometime in 1993 the goombahs realized that they were all buying millions of copies of the same "rare" item. They jumped ship for real estate. Marvel's crooked then-owner Ron Perelman found that the stock he had inflated was worthless, and the sheer amount of crap under the Marvel umbrella quit making a collective profit at all. Marvel Comics went into bankruptcy.

Comics still sucked.

For so long the industry had made money off a broken model of style over substance that they didn't seem to know how to fix it. Things were actually worse for comic readers, since DC and Marvel especially were scaling back to their very basic heroes, still sans decent stories. If you found a diamond-in-the-crap, like Spider-Man 2099, it was canceled. If you liked the mainstream heroes like the Avengers or X-Men, the GrimNGritty injected into their titles made them unrecognizable.

I even quit reading comics. They had cancelled all my other favorite titles and turned Spider-Man into a clone!

(Okay, so I also wanted to know the love of a woman, but that was only part of the reason. In case you wonder, it didn't work. High school . . .)

Who could save us?

Enter Grant Morrison.

Morrison was an unlikely savior: a bizarre little counterculture darling who had written the weirdtastic Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, a five-time winner of the "What Huh?" Ellsworth award.

He pitched a new Justice League series to DC, simply to be called JLA. It would feature the classic pantheon: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Flash and Green Lantern (resembling, not by coincidence, Zeus, Hades, Athena, Ares (the planet Mars, you know), Poseidon, Hermes, and Green Apollo).

For the last few years, most writers had stayed away from this classical line-up. It's hard to write credible threats to a bunch of gods. Morrison, though, threw himself right into the challenge, and dang did he prove equal to it.

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In the first few chapters of JLA, the Hyperclan, a team of alien superheroes, arrives to "save the world." The Hyperclan are a mix of flying, super-speeding, super-strong heroes with interchangeably silly names like "Armek" and "Zenturion." As one JLA member remarks, "They sound like a line of cheap toys." These cheap toys throw down their challenge to the JLA quickly, though, when they accuse the JLA of not doing enough fror the people of Earth. The Hyperclan promptly use their powers to make the Sahara Desert a fertile paradise, and the world ignores Superman's advice that "Deserts can't just be 'fixed.' There are ecological and social causes . . ."

The world adores the Hyperclan, a little too much, to the point where Batman points out a number of suspiciously active frequencies that could be mind control. What follows is EPIC, featuring aquatic whale battles, a race at the speed of light, a deathmatch in low orbit, and Superman punching Hyperclan leader Protex through the crust of the earth to battle in a cavern of raging magma.

Grant Morrison gets the JLA's personalities, from newbies Flash and Green Lantern, whose forebears had been respectively killed off the last few years, to Batman and Aquaman's outsider status. Green Lantern mutters things like "I can't handle this. It's like playing with the Beatles." Batman emerges from the shadows at the JLA's meeting, and Superman says, "I didn't hear your heartbeat." Batman smiles. "Hm. Gadget worked." It's just a little tossed-off comment, but it's these little touches that give personality to these icons.

Morrison understands why Batman is the most dangerous member of the JLA, as the Dark Knight Detective's skills provide the answer the JLA need to take out the Hyperclan. He even gets Aquaman, whose ability to talk to fish becomes cool, as he locates the villains' basal ganglia, the part inherited from marine ancestors, and gives them all a seizure. Best of all, Morrison understands Martian Manhunter, and much of the story hinges around J'onn J'onnz's essentially alien nature and fundamental loneliness, as he empathizes with these castaways from another world.

Howard Porter's art is up to the EPIC, from the way he draws Superman and Protex crashing through rock and Wonder Woman attacking a Hyperclan member in low orbit, to the way that Batman slips through the darkness of the Hyperclan's headquarters. Flash battles Zum, the Hyperclan's speedster, at such high speeds that the light is warping around them. The characters really do loom like gods, immense and buff and full of energy.

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Sometimes, though, Porter's proportions are way off. There is one shot of the Flash that makes him look as though he were modeled on Gollum, and a few shots of Wonder Woman where her breasts appear to have migrated to her collarbone. He got it almost right, but the few times he was off, it threw me right out of the comic.

In this corner, we have an epic adventure with stunning ambition that can also be fun and self-deprecating. The only detriment is some of the art. In the Avengers' corner . . .

I must confess that I'm a little biased on this one. Years back, after I had "quit comics," I was having a lousy month I saw a circle rack at Waldenbooks and decided to take comfort in some old friends. I picked up Avengers issue 4 and that was it. Hooked again.

Marvel wised up in one-nine-nine-seven, when they realized that DC was cleaning up on plain old tights n' fights. They recruited relative newcomer Kurt Busiek and old hand George Perez to reinvigorate the JLA's cross-company rivals the Avengers.

Busiek was a small-time writer made good. He penned Marvels and Astro City, series about regular people witnessing the acts of superheroes, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, a little gem of a comic about Peter Parker's early days, and Thunderbolts, a series about a "new team of heroes" who turned out to be far more than they seemed.

Perez, on the other hand, was about as legendary as a man could get in the comics industry. From his pioneering work on New Teen Titans to Crisis on Infinite Earths to Wonder Woman to pretty much anything else anywhere, Perez had a name as a guy who could draw huge casts of characters and made them work in his fighty-fight-tastic scenes.

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Perez is at his best in scenes where lots o' stuff is happening, and Busiek takes full advantage of it in the first few chapters of Assemble. Forty spandex heroes, hundreds of villains, flying debris and five varieties of energy blasts? Why, good ladies and gents, that was just in the first chapter. In the second and third chapters, the Avengers are transported to an alternate medieval reality where Perez outfits them all with suitably medieval versions of their costumes, and they accordingly storm the castle. Later on, the Avengers battle the Squadron Supreme, a JLA-esque nemesis. (Someone had wishful thoughts of a crossover.) Each scene is as detailed and intricate as Weta Workshop might make it, all from Perez's humble pen.

Busiek's characterization nails the Avengers, who work on a fundamentally different dynamic than the camaraderie of the JLA. The Avengers have always been a little snipey and fractious and competitive. Hawkeye questions Captain America's leadership skills, yelling out "Whaaa?" when Cap distributes orders he doesn't like. Ms. Marvel, here called Warbird, hides her alcoholism from the team until it becomes a liability. Thor, later in the series (circa Assemble vol. 3), gets angry at the increasingly suspicious Marvel public, who have never trusted their heroes. "Thou are jackals! Jackals and Troll-Rats!" he shouts before he uses his hammer to smash a heap of nosy news reporter equipment.

(Oh yeah, and Busiek nails the wonderfully purple faux Elizabethan dialect of Thor. I adore that ridiculous language.)

Busiek, however, is a bit crippled by his Silver Age-ishness in that he can't achieve Morrison's level of self-deprecation. When Iron Man quips, "Nice flying, Cap. Can we go back and get my stomach? I lost it on the third immelman," Cap stoically replies, "No time, Iron Man!" As killer skeletons rise from the ground to attack, Hawkeye quips, "Whoa, team! What'd we ever do to tick Ray Harryhausen off!"

In JLA, when Aquaman gives the villain a seizure and quips, "This one doesn't want to fight. He's got a headache," he follows it with, "Ah . . . sorry, I have no idea why I said that." "Those one-liners can just disappear out from under you," Flash replies.

Busiek spends a lot of time on the Avengers' history together, and though it's fun and accessible, it takes up a bit too much time. He also tends to retread old threats -- Morgan le Fay, Whirlwind, the Squadron Supreme and the Kree -- rather than Morrison's new and thus more threatening villains like the Hyperclan and the succeeding story in which the JLA fight rebellious archangels.

So in this corner, we have a well-written, amazingly drawn comic, but one that gets a bit too stuck on its nostalgia.

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Thirteen years on, as I reread, the winner of the 90s is . . .

JLA. I hate myself for this, because Busiek's Avengers will always take up half my heart (the wife and kids get most of the rest), but as I reread these comics twelve years later, JLA just holds up better. Morrison's threats are mind-blowing, and Porter's art is up to the challenge 90% of the time. Avengers comes off as a backward-looking book, giving a well-deserved good old time to the many disgruntled fans of the age.

Next issue: I tried to wait. I can't. It's time to start the countdown to Kenneth Branagh's Thor movie, with an examination of the most counterintuitive hero in comics. Verily, dear reader, do move thy data-deficient brain 'pon these fields of miraculous pictography, in the moon of Samhain. Let Mjolnir be thy battle-cry! Zounds!

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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