Monday, 24 December 2012

Merry Xmas 2012 Pals!

Merry Xmas to everyone! I hope nothing as terrifying and disturbing as what's happening on this Batman cover happens to any of you this Xmas.

Nadolig llawen! xxxxxxxx

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Justice League Movie and the story that may inspire it!

Latino Review are reporting that Warner Bros’ upcoming Justice League film will be inspired by a 1980 story by Gerry Conway called ‘Crisis on New Genesis’, originally found in Justice League of America Vol.1 #183-185. A reprint of the story is currently available in Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol.5 and it’s well worth a look, not just because it may be the inspiration for what could be the greatest super-hero film ever, but also because it’s a damn good story.

(To read more click here....)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Top Ten Best Superman Villains

One of the most common criticisms of Superman is that his rogues gallery is somewhat lacking. Toyman and Prankster are usually trotted out to back up this point of view, and considering they're essentially just two fat guys, then it's true to say that they don't really compare favourably to the likes of The Joker, Loki or The Green Goblin. But Superman's baddies are far more than two portly gents with bowties and killer pogo sticks. In order to demonstrate that Superman's nemesis's, nemesees, nemesi, whatever, are just as good (or bad) as Batman's or Spidey's, I present to you a list of the Top Ten Greatest Superman villains!

10) Titano

What's better than King Kong? King Kong with deadly Kryptonite vision! This seldom used misunderstood creature has all the tragedy and pathos of King Kong, with the added bonus of green ray beams that shoot out of his eyes. The fact that these ray beams are Kryptonite beams and therefore absolutely useless unless he's fighting Superman just adds to the goofy Silver Age fun. The best thing about Titano was the way he was eventually thwarted. Giant lead glasses!

Essential Storylines

'Titano the Super Ape' Superman #127 (1959)

The great ape's first appearance. Beauty doesn't kill the beast, but she does trick him into getting sucked back in time to a prehistoric age where he can live out his days walloping dinosaurs.

9) Terra-Man

Terra-Man is a space cowboy with alien technology who rides a flying horse. His alien technology includes expanding bullets and killer cigar smoke. Seriously, what's not to love about this guy? Okay granted, he was revamped in the early '90s as a boring eco-terrorist that eventually got ripped in half on live TV by Black Adam, but he was originally envisioned as a space cowboy with alien technology who rides a flying horse, and that's what we should focus on!

Essential Storylines

'The Challenge of Terra Man!' Superman #249 (1972)

Terra-Man's first appearance. Superman has to fight Terra-Man while suffering from hereditary Kryptonian Birthday angst that causes the Man of Steel to fly upside down and use his X-Ray Vision to stare at his own brain. It's just as awesome as it sounds!

8) Doomsday

The unstoppable monster that killed Superman has been somewhat overused in the past ten years. Also, for an unstoppable monster he's started to come across as distinctly stoppable. For example during the 'Our Worlds At War' crossover he was sent up against Imperiex (a Galactus rip off who can crap out smaller versions of himself) and fried within seconds of leaping into combat. This may have made Imperiex look pretty badass, but it was at the cost of seriously undermining Doomsday. Doomsday deserves better. After all, he did kill Superman (spoiler alert: Superman got better). Doomsday is at his best when he's written as he was originally conceived, a relentless, tireless, indestructible, destructive force. He's an uglier version of Hulk without Banner. He's a force of nature, a grey, bony tornado in green cycling shorts. This of course all serves a purpose. If Doomsday comes across as an almost godlike destructive force then the one person who can stop him is bound to come across as pretty damn special too. That person is of course, Superman.

Essential Storylines

'The Death of Superman' (1992)

Doomsday smashes his way across the United States and completely trashes the Justice League in the process. Of course then Superman shows up and eventually stops him but at the cost of his own life. This may be a six part punch up but it's genuinely entertaining. Writer Dan Jurgens focuses just enough on the ordinary people caught up in the destruction to suck us in, but never at the cost of the superhero/monster action.

'Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey' (1994)

A sequel of sorts to the above story. Superman is back from the dead but so is Doomsday. Superman journeys to Apokolips to face him and learns Doomsday's origin in the process. The best thing about this story is that Superman is genuinely terrified at the thought of facing Doomsday again. The fact that he does it anyway highlights the true heroism and courage of the character. Also, Doomsday kicks Darkseid's ass, which is pretty satisfying.

7) Mr Mxyzptlk

He's the imp from the fifth dimension whose sole aim in life is to get on Superman's tits. Less a villain, more of a pain in the arse, Mxyzptlk represents the fun side of Superman comics more than any other Super-baddy. While a lot of the fun comes from his magical pranks, the most fun is to be had from Superman's attempts to trick Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards, the only thing that'll send him back to the fifth dimension. While most villains received some sort of grim and gritty reboot in the eighties and nineties, the tone of most Mxyzptlk stories have remained much the same, which is good news for those of us who like our comics to be daft on occasion.

Essential Storylines

'The Mysterious Mr Mxyztplk' Superman #30 (1944)

This is Mxy's first appearance and his antics are genuinely hilarious. The bit with McGurk the statue is as funny as any Warner Bros. cartoon.

'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?' Superman#423 and Action Comics #583 (1986)

Just before John Byrne's reboot Alan Moore wrote this legendary two parter to close the book on Superman's Silver age adventures. An unknown villain is attacking Superman more ruthlessly than anyone ever has before. Spoiler alert, turns out it's Mxyzptlk. Apparently as an immortal he spent the first two thousand years of his existence doing nothing, then the next being good. All of his antics throughout Superman's career have been part of his two thousand years of mischief and now he's begun two thousand years of evil! This Mxy is as scary as the original is funny but even without Moore's fresh take on our favourite imp, this is one of the greatest Superman stories ever.

6) The Cyborg Superman

Hank Henshaw was an astronaut caught up in a radiation accident that killed his crew mates, including, ultimately, his wife. While Henshaw's body was destroyed he was given the ability to forge new bodies for himself out of any available technology. He eventually got his hands on Kryptonian technology and knowledge of Superman's genetic make up and made himself the body we all love to hate, that of the Cyborg Superman. Of course his ability to abandon and recreate bodies makes him completely un-killable, and thank goodness for that 'cos he's massive fun. Henshaw's biggest success was the destruction of Green Lantern's home town, Coast City while posing as the resurrected Superman. When I was a lad and I first read 'The Return of Superman' storyline as it came out I was totally convinced that the Cyborg was the real deal (I was eleven, give me a break) and the destruction of Coast City blew me away. Henshaw's such a great villain that he's too good to keep to one hero, so he's also a bit of a Green Lantern villain too. During the brilliant Green Lantern story 'The Sinestro Corps War' Geoff Johns developed the character further and changed Henshaw's indestructibility into his greatest weakness. Henshaw's sick of being a Cyborg killing machine and just wants to die, the one thing he'll never be able to do. It's this potential for great character development that continues to be realised, and the fact that he fooled gullible eleven year old me, that justifies Cyborg Superman's presence on this list.

Essential Storylines

'The Limits of Power' Adventures of Superman #466 (1990)

In his first proper appearance (he pops up in a few panels of an earlier issue) Henshaw and his crew get messed up by radiation big time in a twisted homage to the origin of the Fantastic Four.

'The Return of Superman' (1993)

The story where Henshaw first turned up in Cyborg form and made a big mess of Green Lantern's stomping ground. First rate '90s fun.

'The Sinestro Corps War' (2007)

Even if you don't believe me about the greatness of Cyborg Superman, check out this story anyway. The Cyborg is but one awesome baddie among many.

5) The Parasite

The Parasite was a janitor who peeked into a batch of radioactive waste and was transformed into an energy sucking, purple monster. Since he can absorb his opponent's powers and life force he's always been able to give Superman a run for his money. Originally named Raymond Maxwell Jensen and then updated to Rudy Jones, the Parasite has always been a credible threat to Supes and a character rife with story potential. There was a great 1994 story where Superman became overloaded with power and had to leave himself open to an attack from the Parasite in order to survive. Another great story development occurred in the mid-'90s when the Parasite absorbed the personality of a scientist named Dr. Torval Freeman. Freeman initially seems to be another tragic victim but gradually emerges as a ruthless, cunning and domineering personality that drives Rudy Jones to further villainy. Recently Geoff Johns has updated Rudy's origin further. In 'Superman: Secret Origin' Johns depicts him as the janitor for the Daily Planet, a fat slob who bums money and sandwiches off Clark Kent. Making Rudy a "parasite" by nature even before his accident seems such an obvious idea I'm amazed it's taken this long for a writer to think of it!

Essential Storylines

'Superman and Spider-Man' Marvel Treasury Edition #28 (1981)

Even though the Parasite is just a glorified henchman to Dr. Doom, it's still a real thrill to see Parasite absorb and duplicate Spidey's powers.

'Til Death Do Us Part' (2001)

The Parasite poses as Lois Lane. He then gives Clark Kent the elbow and has sex with Lex Luthor. That's right, you read that correctly, the Parasite has sex with Lex Luthor!  Eeeww!

4) General Zod

Not only is Zod one of Superman's coolest foes, but check it out, he according to artist Pete Woods he also looks like Ian 'Lovejoy' McShane!

These days Zod is one of Superman's most famous baddies, but originally Zod was just one of the many Kryptonian super-criminals who would periodically escape from the Phantom Zone to menace Superman. In fact out of all the Kryptonian baddies, Jax-Ur usually posed the biggest threat, rather than Zod. That was until 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Superman' II hit the big screen and Terence Stamp made Zod into into the iconic arch-foe we know today!

In 1988 writer/artist John Byrne gave Zod got one of his most memorable comic book stories. This version of Zod hailed from a "pocket universe" and he and his two Kryptonian chums had killed everyone on their Earth and were threatening to do the same to Superman's Earth. Superman felt he had no choice but to execute them with Kryptonite. This sent Superman crazy with guilt, and he vowed never, ever to take a life again. This particular plot point has been forgotten over the years, but I was very fond of it. It made Superman's famous vow against killing seem all the more meaningful since he had experienced what it was like to take a life. 

In 2009 Zod got some intriguing character development in the pages of 'World of New Krypton'. This version of Zod was a complex character who was undoubtedly a would be conqueror and grade A nutbar with a powerful hatred of Superman, but was also a hero to his people and a man who genuinely cared about the safety of Krypton.

Essential Storylines

'Last Son' (2008)

In this story penned by Geoff Johns and 'Superman: The Movie' director Richard Donner, Zod leads an army of Phantom Zone criminals in an invasion of Metropolis while using his own son as a pawn. The world's only defence? A team comprised of Superman, Lex Luthor, Parasite, Bizarro and Metallo! Seriously, this story kicks ass!

3) Bizarro

All the best stories contain both comedy and tragedy and Bizarro is a character capable of both of these at the the same time. He's like Frankenstein's Monster, if Frankenstein's Monster made a big cube shaped planet to live on and wore a huge stone medallion declaring himself Number One. Bizarro is the imperfect duplicate of Superman who's the character of a thousand uses. Much of the goofy Fifties and Sixties stories depicting Bizarro setting up home on Bizarro World with Bizarro Lois are great fun. On the other hand there are stories such as Bizarro's first appearance in 1958, where he tragically sacrifices himself to cure a girl's blindness, that are proper tear jerkers. There's also the scary side to Bizarro, such as when he murders the Human Bomb during 'Infinite Crisis', pummelling the man with the explosive touch to a bloody pulp just so he can see the "pretty lights". It's this versatility that has made Bizarro such an enduring character and the definite number three on my list.

Essential Storylines

'Bizarro, The Super-Creature of Steel' Superboy #68 (1958)

This is Bizarro's first appearance and he's depicted as a real misunderstood monster here. He wanders around saddened and confused by everyone's terrified reaction to his antics. You're kind of rooting for him, to the extent that Superboy, with his efforts to destroy Bizarro, almost seems like the bad guy.

'Escape From Bizarro World' (2008)

With a Bizarro World orbiting a Blue Sun, complete with Bizarro Lois, Bizarro Jimmy, Bizarro Perry White, Bizarro Luthor, a Bizarro Justice League and a Superman with 'Superman Vision' this is the ultimate Bizarro story. It's not just silliness though. There are some touching moments as Bizarro searches for guidance from Pa Kent and Superman remembers the great influence his Pa has had on his life. As well as a great Bizarro story, with amazing art from 'The Goon' artist Eric Powell, this was one of the last great Pa Kent stories before he kicked the bucket.

2) Brainiac

There are quite a lot of different versions of Brainiac out there, and this can put people off the character. Originally he was a green skinned, computer brained alien but in the early Eighties he was given a scary robot body. Scary robot bodied Brainiac was at his best during the 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' in 1986. There's a really awesome bit where an alternate version of Luthor points out that they don't need two Luthors on their bad guy team. Brainiac coldly and logically agrees with this and blasts alternate Luthor to bits. While Brainiac's coldness as he dispatches alternate Luthor is chilling there's also something quite touching about the way he prefers his universe's Luthor to the alternate Luthor. They are old pals after all.

Later that decade he was revamped again, this time as a disembodied alien consciousness that took over the body of a circus mentalist with real psychic powers. While that era's Superman seemed to come up against psychic foes quite a lot, Brainiac was so charismatically evil he still stood out from the psychic herd and he even gained a villainous goatee beard. Then came the upgraded versions of Brainiac from the future such as Brainiac 8, 12 and 13. In one particularly good story Brainiac 13 upgraded all the technology in Metropolis centuries ahead of its time. The current version of Brainiac (Version 2.5) was hiding in the brain of Luthor's infant daughter and the story ends with Luthor giving little Lena Luthor to Brainiac 13 in exchange for the secrets of the upgraded Metropolis. What a bastard! Eventually all these different versions were revealed to be probes sent out by the original Brainiac, who was so badass that he killed Pa Kent!

There are many different versions of Brainiac floating around but he's not really that complicated. All you need to know is that he's a green-skinned invader from space who has a computer brain and shrinks cities in order to put them in bottles. As if that wasn't awesome enough, sometimes he has a pet monkey.

Essential Storylines

'Panic in the Sky' (1992)

Brainiac has taken over Warworld and is coming to take over Earth. Superman teams up with just about every hero active the DC Universe of the early '90s to take him down.

'Brainiac' (2008)

This is the story where we find out that all the previous versions of Brainiac have been probes sent by the ultimate badass version of Brainiac that we meet for the first time here. Brainiac is built up as huge threat to Superman throughout the story, which makes it all the more satisfying when Superman kicks his ass.

1) Lex Luthor

There is only one man who can be described as Superman's ultimate foe. The fact that he manages this despite having no superpowers is just one of the reasons why he's so awesome. He's the Batman of super-villains. He walks among other villains who can grow to giant-size, move at the speed of light or live forever, and yet they all defer to him and they all fear him. Why? Because he's Lex Luthor! The greatest and most dangerous criminal mind of this and any another time.

Lex hates Superman and a character completely driven by hate is easy to relate to. He can become President of the United States, clone himself a new body or travel to the planet Lexor and we still understand him because we all know what its like to feel resentment towards someone who is our superior in some way. As far as Lex is concerned, in a world without superheroes men like him would be the heroes. If he can just get rid of Superman then he'll get everything that he's due.

Reading his stories you get the impression that one of the biggest reasons why Lex hates Superman is because Lex believes that everyone, deep down is as selfish and cruel as him. Along comes Superman, exposing Lex's world view as a lie. Superman does what he does because he wants to inspire the best in the people of Earth. In the words of Jor-El "They are a good people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. It is for this reason above all, their capacity for good, that I've sent them you, my only son." Naturally a man like Lex, who displays only the worst humanity has to offer, greed, cruelty, hate, is going to get on Superman's tits. Lex is the one man who refuses to be inspired by Superman and so he exposes Superman's world view as a lie too. That is why Lex is my (and everybody else's) Number One Superman Villain!

Essential Storylines

Pretty much every story he's been in, but here's two....

'The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman' Superman #164 (1963)

Luthor and a powerless Superman, bare chested and duking it out. What more do you need to know? Despite their sweaty punch up though, this story does show the softer side to Luthor as he becomes a hero to the people of another planet.

'The Secret Revealed' Superman #2 (1987)

In this story Luthor tortures Lana Lang, lords it over Superman with a Kryptonite ring and then finds out that Clark Kent is Superman. Of course he's such an arrogant bastard that he refuses to believe that a man with such power would want to pose as as a mere mortal. This story shows Eighties businessman Luthor at his best, or worst depending how you look at it.

So there we have the Top Ten Best Superman Villains Ever. Disagree? Angry at the absence of Metallo, Darkseid, Atomic Skull, K-Man, Mongul, Bloodsport, Conduit, Gog, Live-Wire, Shrapnel, Maxima, Riot, Black Zero, Silver Banshee or Colonel Future? Leave a comment and let us know!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Review: Superman – Earth One, Volume Two

While I enjoyed J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis' Superman - Earth One, Vol. One, I couldn't help but feel that it was something of a wasted opportunity. The Earth One line is free from the constraints of the continuity and canon of the monthly Superman comics and therefore should be able to take risks and show us different and unique takes on familiar characters. I felt that Earth One, Vol. One was a good enough story but, aside from a few changes to the history of his home planet Krypton, it offered us no new insights into the character of Superman. Volume Two, I'm happy to say, is quite different. This book offers us a take on Superman that I genuinely feel couldn't have been offered in the main Superman title. As a result it has some uncomfortable moments, but these moments ultimately serve to make the book all the more rewarding. 

Straczynski's Superman, as in Volume One of this series, is very aware of his alien nature and as a result is quite a lonely, isolated figure. But unlike Volume One the tragedy of his isolation is communicated effectively by some very human moments. Clark Kent thinks back on the death of a childhood pet, and grows ever closer to his attractive new neighbour, Lisa Lasalle. These little identifiable insights into Clark's life and personality are far more than we got in Volume One and they make Clark's self imposed distance from the rest of the human race all the more poignant. His powers enable him to give his pet a unique and wonderful final, resting place and yet prevent him from getting too intimate with his new love interest.

The question of whether Clark is able to get intimate with a human is not the only potentially awkward area covered in this book. Straczynski also seeks to address that old question, “Why doesn't Superman end all war?” Towards the end of the book we see Superman interfering in a big way in the affairs of a foreign nation. In the more mainstream comics Superman has traditionally drawn a clear line for himself between being a friend who's here to support and help the human race and being an alien invader who's here to impose his will. He's careful never to cross this line. But this isn't the mainstream Superman. This version of Superman feels that he can't afford to “work within the system” as he puts it. He sees himself as separate from the human race, and even superior to it, and as a result he feels he has a responsibility to blur that afore mentioned line somewhat. It's a take on the character that's bound to feel uncomfortable for a lot of Superman fans, it certainly did for me. But I also feel that it's an aspect of the character that's worth exploring. Could a person with Superman's powers really completely ignore a lot of the suffering that goes on in the world, even in the name of the bigger picture of non-interference in human destiny? The alternate Universe of Earth One provides a perfect opportunity to look into this darker, more uncomfortable aspect of our hero and I applaud Straczynski for doing so.

The main villain of the story, The Parasite has a somewhat clich├ęd back story. The whole "bad seed who's protective of a younger sibling" trope has been used more effectively elsewhere, notably with the character of Captain Cold during Geoff Johns' run on The Flash, and in the recent DC Animated movie, Superman Vs. The Elite. And I can't help but wonder if the Parasite would have been a more compelling villain if he had been less of an irredeemable psychopath before his transformation.

The Parasite does however look fantastic. The decision to cover the Parasite in transparent green pustules was a brilliant one. He looks truly disgusting, a proper monster. I was less impressed however with other aspects of Shane Davis' art. His women all look the same. Lois Lane, Lisa Lasalle, and Parasite's sister Theresa would be indistinguishable from each other were it not for their hair colour. I was also disappointed with the design of a protective armour worn by Superman. It's certainly in keeping with the established look of Kryptonian technology but it's pretty boring to look at.

While Shane Davis' art wasn't completely to my liking I still feel there's a lot to admire about Superman – Earth One, Volume Two. If you're a hardcore Superman fan with a very fixed view of what is acceptable behaviour for a Man of Steel then you probably won't like it. But if you're interested in seeing an exploration of Superman's role on Earth that goes down some uncomfortable but intriguing avenues then you'll probably enjoy this book as much as I did.

I give Superman – Earth One, Volume Two 3/5.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Review: Superman #13

Since DC Comics’ relaunch of its superhero titles, The New 52, began over a year ago, Superman has been a book that has lacked a clear direction and any kind of consistency. George Perez managed a lacklustre six issues before Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens handed in another entertaining but inconsequential six issues. Scott Lobdell has been the new writer for the past two months, with Kenneth Rocafort on art. So far Lobdell and Rocafort have given us Superman Annual #1, where they spent far too much time telling us that the villain Helspont is a badass and not enough time on the Man of Steel, and Superman #0, a fantastic issue set on Krypton that featured Superman for only one page. It was with some trepidation then that I approached Superman #13. After all, Lobdell and Rocafort had yet to fully demonstrate their vision for Superman and based on their two previous issues I honestly felt that the quality of the book could go either way.

I needn't have worried. Superman #13 was absolutely brilliant.

Lobdell's Superman is actually Super! The issue begins with Superman bench-pressing a planet for five days straight. This is the kind of super-feat we haven't seen for literally decades in the pages of this book, and it's just the start. Perez' run on this book suffered from Superman having to fight some pretty generic monsters. Lobdell has Superman fight a truly impressive monster that manages to knock him halfway around the world. The monster's effectiveness has a lot to do with Rocafort, who really conveys the scale of the beast, and makes it look truly unique. Lobdell also has Superman use his super-hearing, heat vision and Arctic breath in ways that I have never seen him use them before. This is a refreshing change from the way we usually see Superman utilising his powers; pointing and shooting in the midst of battle.

It's Lobdell's depiction of Clark Kent however, that really stands out in this issue. I finally recognise this Clark as the one I've been reading about in Grant Morrison's Action Comics. Morrison's Clark is a bit scatty with his personal life, a bit younger and a bit scruffier than we're used to seeing him. The Clark we've been seeing depicted by Perez, Giffen and Jurgens seemed more mature and a lot like Superman was before the reboot. There was nothing wrong with their depiction of Clark but it seemed inconsistent and far removed from the fresh, new vision that Morrison was giving us in Action. Lobdell on the other hand has really embraced the New 52 and gotten completely on board with the new version of Clark. Lobdell's Clark, like Morrison's is scruffy and disorganised but joyful of his powers and most importantly, passionate about justice and the truth.

There's been a lot of hype about Lobdell's decision to have Clark quit the Daily Planet. The scene in which Clark quits is so good it makes me glad that the eyes of the world have been drawn to this issue. Clark does the kind of walk out on his job that we've all dreamed of doing at some point in our life, telling his boss off while fuelled with righteous fury, with the eyes of his co-workers on him. But this scene is a lot more than just wish fulfilment for down-trodden employees everywhere. Here in the UK we've recently seen the reporting of the horrific sexual abuse committed by deceased TV star Jimmy Savile derailed by discussions of how his former employers, the BBC made the absurd decision not to report on his crimes just after he died over a year ago. Over the past year we've also seen just how low the press are prepared to sink in pursuit of a story, with revelations and allegations of journalists hacking phones and bribing the police dominating the headlines. Clark Kent, the embodiment of honest journalism, standing up in the middle of the Daily Planet newsroom and saying “Somewhere along the way the business of new became the news!” conveys a particularly important and resonant message that needs to be shared.

Rocafort's art is absolutely beautiful and the effectiveness of Clark's speech has a lot to do with him. Rocafort successfully conveys the power of Clarks' righteous fury but then swiftly turns it on its head when it becomes apparent that Clark is a lone voice. The panel containing Clark's speech dominates the page, with each panel getting subsequently smaller as Clark realises that none of his co-workers share his passion and he has to take a lonely walk out of the building.

My only minor problem with this issue is with Lobdell's characterisation of Cat Grant and Perry White. I would have preferred that Cat had not been depicted as a complete airhead, as traditionally she has always been a far more interesting character. To be fair though, she is the only one who follows Clark's principled stand and Lobdell may have some character development planned for her somewhere down the line. I am convinced however that Perry White should really have had a lot more to say to a reporter he respects besmirching the name of the paper he loves.

Overall though I loved this issue. Lobdell's Superman is lots of fun and for the first time it feels like this book has truly joined the New 52. Based on this issue, I believe that Lobdell should have been writing Superman from issue #1!

I give Superman #13 4/5.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012


As of today I'll be contributing articles to World of Superheroes! Finally I'm a legit-o-mite writer! I'll still be writing stuff for here too though so don't go away. What better way to start my contributions than with a re-draft of my most controversial article;

Why Superman Should Be Gay (Or At Least Bi-Sexual)

It's already attracted a lot of anger on Facebook, some of it is quite amusing. Now, I'm by no means saying that if you disagree with this article then you're homophobic, but if you disagree with this article by typing "Superman has always stood for the America Way...Not the American Gay!" (as one Facebook commenter did) then you probably are homophobic.

Keep checking out World of Superheroes for more of my articles. And also, just keep checking it out anyway because it's a great website!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Comic Book Fans! Dismount your High Horses! An Addendum

I've received some criticism for my last post, particularly a response on Tumblr by missingkeys. I've been reflecting on it all day. I do still think that a lot of the criticism that creators and comics companies receive on the internet is unfair. I think the fact that someone like Grant Morrison has walked away from a genre he loves partly due to, in his words, "a comic book fan culture where everyone was mad at you all the time" should be something of a wake up call to us all.

But I think I was also unfair in a lot of what I wrote. I used Morrison's decision as a springboard to launch into my own thoughts on fan culture, and I think I was too quick to lump all dissenting voices into one big grumpy package. It's not fair for me to put those who call for greater diversity in the same boat as some poser who eats books, or a blogger who views working on Before Watchmen as the moral equivalent of child abuse. I wanted to make a point about how a lot of fan responses these days seem out of proportion to me. But I'm writing from a certain position, and as missingkeys says, it is a position of privilege. For example, my relationship with a character like Stephanie Brown is going to be completely different to the relationship of a young girl who loves superheroes but feels that there aren't that many identifiable characters for her within the superhero genre. Am I in a position then, where I'm able to judge that her reaction to the character's absence is out of proportion? Probably not.

This is a short post because I'm still reflecting on this, but I wanted to at least acknowledge that there were things in the original article that I need to reconsider. Perhaps I'll revisit this in a future article.

In the meantime, for no particular reason, here's a picture of Aquaman sitting on an octopus and looking mighty pleased with himself.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Comic Book Fans! Dismount your High Horses!

Grant Morrison: Is he really such a villain?

The New Statesman published an interview with Grant Morrison this week in which he discusses his reasons for stepping away from superhero comics. It seems that his run on Action Comics and Batman Incorporated are coming to a natural end and a lot of his ideas seem to be leading him away from superheroes. He also states that he's finding the pace of writing monthly comics and having to co-ordinate with multiple artists to be a hectic experience. But there also seems to be another, more depressing reason. He's sick of being the bad guy. Morrison's sums it up in the following quote;
So I kinda felt that.. it just began to feel too unpleasant to work within a comic book fan culture where everyone was mad at you all the time and giving you responsibility for legal cases and things that I have got honestly nothing to do with in my life and will shortly have zero connection with. But I felt that. There was a sense of, a definite sense of the temple was being burned down and it was time to run away. 
It does seem that a lot of the criticism of DC Comics' ethical practices and overall creative direction has been directed towards Morrison. One fan (this twat) even protested by eating Supergods, Morrison's book chronicling the history of the superhero genre. I'm not going to defend Morrison's views here, because he does a pretty good job of that himself in the interview. But what I will say is this. When Morrison writes superheroes, it sells. For example, sales on Action Comics went up 93% during the past year during Morrison's run. Morrison's superhero work then, is obviously admired by a lot of people. But Morrison has left superheroes behind due, at least in part, to the behaviour of a vocal minority. So it would seem that a minority has got it's way at the expense of the enjoyment of the majority. The behaviour of a relatively small group of people has resulted in a larger group of people not being able to enjoy new superhero work by Grant Morrison. Does that sound fair to you? 

To be fair, this "unpleasant comic book culture" isn't the only reason for leaving that Morrison has given. For all I know he would have moved on to other genres anyway. But this interview does highlight an irritating trend amongst comic-book fandom. Fandom has developed a habit of shouting and stamping its foot until it gets its own way, and I'm sick of it. 

These days, if a person doesn't like a comic it can't just be a case of "this isn't to my taste" or "this was poorly written or drawn". A poor comic is taken as a personal slight against the reader and an ethical and moral failure on the part of the comics industry. Spider-Man's not married any more so Marvel must have a vendetta against a certain demographic of fans, or the institution of marriage itself! Stephanie Brown hasn't appeared for a while so obviously DC don't care about their female demographic. Superman's dating Wonder Woman so there's a misogynistic plot to undermine the character of Lois Lane!  It's not enough for some one to be upset because their favourite character has been changed, it now has to be dressed up as a serious issue that affects everyone! The problem with all this absurd hyperbole is that there are conversations to be had about serious issues like gender and race and ethics in comics, but when someone hi-jacks these topics because their favourite character isn't getting enough face time, it undermines the larger debate.

One of the common criticisms levelled at Marvel and DC by this kind of critic is "They're not listening to the fans!" For example, "By having Barbara Gordon as Batgirl instead of Stephanie Brown, DC aren't listening to fans" is a complaint that I see crop up a lot on Twitter. The fact is, sales on Batgirl have risen 96% in the past year. Barbara is selling more than Stephanie did. So what are DC to do? Revert to Stephanie, even though the majority of fans seem to want to buy Barbara's adventures? That really would be not listening to the fans! When people say "They're not listening to the fans" they really mean "They're not listening to me!" This is a perfect example of the arrogance on display from a lot of fans these days. By claiming that DC or Marvel "aren't listening" to you, what you're actually doing is saying that those who have views and tastes that differ from yours aren't worth listening to and somehow, don't count. 

A prime example of how such self-righteous overreactions have gotten out of control occurred last month when one blogger decided to mark the passing of comics legend Joe Kubert by comparing him to Joe Paterno! That's right, in this blogger's view Kubert's contribution to Before Watchmen against the wishes of original Watchmen creator Alan Moore was the moral equivalent of covering up and ignoring child abuse. To be fair the blog published an apology and has since taken the piece down, but the fact that it was published in the first place demonstrates to what offensive levels fans are now taking their criticism, all the while claiming that they're fighting some morally just crusade!

I'm not saying that people shouldn't complain about their comics and I'm not saying that Marvel and DC are completely blameless and never make mistakes. All I'm saying is, sometimes a bad comic is just a bad comic. It's not the death knell for the industry, it's not a personal insult towards any specific group of people, it's not indicative of a creator or company's contempt for the readers, it's just a crappy comic. This self-righteous belly-aching is having consequences. At the very least, it has contributed to Grant Morrison's decision to leave behind a genre that he clearly has a lot of love for! So dismount your high horses people! Just remember, next time it could be your favourite writer who decides it's not worth the hassle.

A short addendum to this article can be found here.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever! (That aren't Year One or Dark Knight Returns)

Everyone knows that Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and Dark Knight Returns are the best Batman stories ever. You don’t need me to tell you that when the whole internet is screaming it at you. But if you’re new to the wonderful world of superhero comics you may be wondering where to go next? Fear not! Here is a list of the Top Ten Best Batman stories that aren’t Year One or DKR.
Firstly, let’s cover a few stories that narrowly missed getting into the Top Ten.
Honourable Mentions
The Untold Legend of The Batman and Batman: Hush seem very different on the surface. The former was a 3 issue re-telling of the origins of Batman and his supporting cast first published in 1980, the latter was a 12 part storyline from 2002 that introduced a new villain, Hush, to Batman’s world. Despite this they both have essentially the same strengths and weaknesses. They’re both beautifully drawn ‘greatest hits’ packages. By this I mean that most of the different aspects of Batman’s world, from supporting characters to villains get some face time. However as stories in their own right they’re a bit flimsy and so they’ve failed to get into my Top Ten.
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) is by beardy comics legend Alan Moore and is the ultimate Joker story. Moore explores the idea that Batman and the Joker are not so different from each other while also telling a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime. As brilliant as this story is, it’s really more of a Joker story than a Batman story, and so it hasn’t made the final cut.
Grant Morrison’s recent Batman run (2006-Ongoing in the pages of Batman INC) is absolutely breathtaking in its scope. Morrison set out to return Batman to his 1970s status as “hairy chested love god” or as Batman describes himself during the run, “alpha male plus”. While taking Batman down this path Morrison has had him father a son, face the Ultimate Evil, die, journey through time, return to life and start a worldwide Batman franchise. Morrison has also had former Robin, Dick Grayson take over as Batman and face disturbing new baddies such as Professor Pyg and the Flamingo. Morrison’s run is loads of fun, but it’s also complex and interwoven, with seemingly throw away incidents paying off in a big way several issues later. For a new reader it’s potentially a big job to take on board all at once and the stories are enhanced by at least a familiarity with some older Batman tales. For this reason I’ve kept it out of the Top Ten, but if you want to get started on Morrison’s ongoing (as of this writing) epic then check out Batman Vs. The Black Glove (Deluxe Edition).
So much for the runners-up, let’s start the countdown!

10) Batman: The Cult (1988)

Batman gets kidnapped, tortured and brainwashed by an evil cult led by the charismatic Deacon Blackfire, a man who may or may not be centuries old! If you liked Dark Knight Returns then you’ll probably like this, as writer Jim Starlin does his very best to homage/rip-off Frank Miller’s style on every page. From the hard boiled, first person narration to the TV talking heads to the tank-like Bat-Mobile, this story wears its debt to Miller on its sleeve. But it's more than just Starlin copying Miller. The timeless story of a hero getting broken and then coming back and kicking ass is hugely entertaining and Berni Wrightson’s art is wonderfully grubby and really conveys a nightmare world of torture in the sewers and hallucinations brought on by hunger and drugs.

9) Batman: The Black Mirror (2011)

This is the most recent tale on the list and also one of the most unusual, in that Bruce Wayne doesn’t feature at all. In this 7 part story by Scott Snyder, Dick Grayson has taken over as Batman and just as Gotham City threw twisted reflections of Wayne at the previous Batman, so too does Dick face ghastly, inverted, mirror images of himself. See, Black Mirror, get it? Through these grim opposite numbers (one character in particular actually) we really get a solid idea of who Dick is and why he’s such a different Batman from Bruce. As well as an excellent portrayal of Dick Grayson we get some great insights into Jim Gordon and Barbara Gordon, a chilling look into how the Joker views his relationship with Batman, and some truly spine-chilling moments with the story’s baddie that will stay with you long after you’ve stopped reading.

8 ) Batman: A Death in the Family (1988-89)

Another Jim Starlin tale makes the Top Ten! Once again we have the Miller-esque, hard boiled, first person narration from Batman, and once again it’s brilliant. At one point Batman is confronted by an assassin who’s determined to fight him, even though Batman seeks only to ask her some probing questions about her sex-life. Batman thinks to himself “It’s a lot like being in the Old West. When you’re the best, every jerk and his sister wants a crack at your title.” Absurdly macho but hugely entertaining stuff! But of course, this story is best remembered for the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, murdered by the Joker. Actually the real murderers were the 5,343 fans who phoned in and voted for Jason to die! That’s right, DC had set up a 1-900 number to decide Jason’s fate. Who says DC don’t listen to the fans? Despite the tacky way Jason’s fate was sealed the story handles it really well. Jason is utterly believable and relatable as a kid bubbling over with anger who can’t meet Batman’s rigid expectation of discipline and control. Obviously Batman’s angry when Jason is killed, but in a stroke of genius Batman’s rage is rendered impotent when the Joker is given diplomatic immunity by his new status as a member of the Iranian government! Batman has more reason than ever to want to beat the living crap out of the Joker, but he can’t touch him without causing an international incident! Brilliant.

7) The Laughing Fish (1978)

Earlier I described The Killing Joke as the ultimate Joker story. If that tale has a valid competitor for that title it’s The Laughing Fish. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers give us the Joker we would later see Jack Nicholson portray in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie; “the world’s first homicidal artist.” Each murder has an imaginative flair that makes it unique to the Joker, and each murder is pretty much motiveless, which makes the Joker all the more difficult for Batman to predict and catch, and the story all the more creepy and disturbing. Add to this Batman’s doomed romance with the iconic Silver St Cloud and a sub-plot about a corrupt politician haunted by the ghost of his last victim, Prof. Hugo Strange, and you get a Batman classic.

6) The Demon Lives Again (1972)

When Morrison spoke of Batman as a “hairy chested love god” he was probably thinking of this story. This 3 part tale by Denny O’ Neil, Irv Norick and Neal Adams shows Batman on an epic, globe-trotting quest to rid the world of his immortal arch-foe, Ra’s Al Ghul! Along the way he press gangs some unlikely allies to aid him, but eventually Batman is left facing Al Ghul alone in the desert in a sweaty, bare-chested, sword fight. So many parts of this story became so iconic that almost every single subsequent Ra’s Al Ghul story seems like a rip-off of this tale in some way. But it’s the story’s depiction of “alpha-male-plus” Batman that I find the most entertaining. Batman outclasses Al Ghul in the sword fight but is felled by a scorpion sting. He receives the antidote from Al Ghul’s daughter Talia, who is motivated in her betrayal by her love for Batman. After rising from near-death Batman storms into Al Ghul’s tent, knocks him out and then steals his daughter, and he does all this without a shirt on! What a guy!

5) Batman: Blind Justice (1989)

This story was written by the writer of the 1989 Batman movie, Sam Hamm. It has a pretty packed plot involving a conspiracy within Wayne Enterprises, Bruce Wayne being framed as a spy, some of the men who trained Batman, two new supporting characters and a body swapping villain. But it’s also rather a grim tale about the price Bruce pays for being Batman. Despite the dense plot and grim central theme it’s an easy, engrossing read and it’s repercussions are still being felt today. The story introduced the character of Henri Ducard, an assassin with an awesome ‘tache who appeared in Batman Begins (sort of) and whose son recently appeared in the pages of Batman and Robin.

4) Batman: Prey (1990-1991)

Batman: Year One has had many sequels. The overrated Long Halloween and Dark Victory follow the continuing exploits of characters featured in Year One. Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder purports to show the “same” Batman we see in Year One and DKR (that’s right, Miller has arrogantly claimed a Bat-Universe of his very own). And of course there’s Batman: Year Two and Year Three. But for me there’s only one true sequel to Year One, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s Prey. While Year One depicts the origin of Batman’s close relationship with Jim Gordon, Prey shows how he won over the rest of the police force. The main antagonist is Prof. Hugo Strange, brilliantly revamped from a mad scientist to an even madder, fame-hungry psychoanalyst. Strange asks the questions of Miller’s Batman that we as fans are too scared to ask; isn’t Batman just a deranged fascistic bully acting out some childish revenge fantasy. Moench then shows us that this isn’t the case by having Batman posses the inner strength to overcome Strange’s mental manipulations, and also by giving us a vigilante character who really is a fascist bully (the Night Scourge) to contrast with Batman. Year One is brilliant but the Batman that Miller depicts in that story needs Prey. Without Prey, Batman ends up as an unpleasant and deranged character, hmmm, kinda like in All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

3) Batman: Venom (1991)

Another entry for legendary Batman writer Denny O’ Neil, Venom actually has a lot in common with Starlin’s The Cult, in that it depicts Batman hitting rock bottom before picking himself up again and triumphing over evil! This is a story about a young Batman at the start of his career and it’s one of the few stories of that sort (other than Year One) that depicts him as a character with a lot to learn who still makes mistakes. And boy, what a mistake! After failing to save a little girl because of his inability to move a heavy rock, Batman gets addicted to an experimental strength enhancing drug. Of course Batman eventually realises the error of his ways and wreaks vengeance on the makers of the drug. The great thing about this story is that even though Batman inevitably kicks the habit the story doesn’t cop out by depicting Batman’s withdrawal as anything other than a horrific ordeal. Also, Batman fights a shark!!! That sentence alone should convince you to read this story!

2) Batman: Gothic (1990)

Once again this is a story from the early days of Batman’s career. This story chronicles Batman’s first encounter with the supernatural. He battles Mr Whisper, a three hundred year old monk who made a pact with the devil. The twist? The monk also happens to have been Bruce Wayne’s old headmaster! This story is genuinely spine tingling. The flashbacks to Whisper’s crimes at Bruce Wayne’s school are chilling and Batman seems temporarily out of his depth as his familiar world of gangsters and criminals is overrun with the inexplicable. The dark, scratchy art of Klaus Janson adds to the general spookiness. Writer Grant Morrison gives lots of nods to Batman’s “real” first encounter with a supernatural foe, 1939′s Batman vs. The Vampire, such as Batman’s use of his Bat-Gyro. This isn’t a tale with any lasting repercussions for the Bat-Universe, but it will stay with you. It’s a testament to how versatile a character Batman is that he can fit so perfectly into a supernatural, horror story as good as this one.

1) John Wagner, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s run on Detective Comics (1988-1990)
(Detective Comics #583-594; 601-621)

Okay, this is a bit of a cop-out as I’ve failed to pick one storyline out of this run, but you know what? I don’t care. Seriously, this is the most perfect version of Batman ever. Wagner and Grant’s Batman is the gritty, damaged Miller version, merged with Morrison’s “love god”, merged with the father figure who raises and nurtures Robins, merged with the super-hero from the pages of Justice League. He’s every Batman, it’s all in him!
Breyfogle is the perfect artist for this most versatile of Batmen. He can draw a Batman flushed with pride at his new Robin, a Batman reflecting in quiet sadness at the plight of homeless children or a Batman pumped full of Scarecrow fear toxins and crapping his pants, all within pages of each other. One of the things that I feel sums up Breyfogle’s versatility as an artist is the way he draws Batman’s utility belt. Now this may seem like a minor detail but when I first encountered Breyfogle’s work as a child it was the first time I had ever seen Batman’s belt drawn as if it could conceivably hold Batman’s entire arsenal. It’s bright yellow and chunky with capsules and pouches hanging off it, a proper superhero gadget belt. And yet in the very next panel the belt is only barely glimpsed as Batman fades into the shadows and the gadget loving superhero becomes a dark creature of the night. I would go as far as to say that Breyfogle is the best Batman artist ever.
But this isn’t just about the art. Wagner and Grant are British writers famous for their work on 2000AD (in fact Wagner co-created Judge Dredd) and 2000AD’s dark creativity is apparent on every page of their Batman stories. They created a vast array of villains that straddled the line between the ridiculous and the terrifying and enriched the Bat-Universe. These villains included The Corrosive Man, The Ventriloquist and Scarface, The Ratcatcher, Anarky, The Obeah Man and Cornelius Stirk. They were also equally adept at handling established villains. One memorable story involved a team comprising of every version of Clayface while another involved Batman teaming up with and then battling Jack Kirby’s Demon.
Creativity and versatility are two words that are inextricably linked with all the best Batman stories and I would argue that Wagner, Grant and Breyfogle’s ‘Tec run embodied these qualities more than any other story or run in Batman’s long history. It really is that good! These stories are slightly harder to get hold of than the others on this list because they’ve inexplicably never been collected together in a trade paperback or hardcover. They’re usually cheap on ebay or in second hand shops and if you’re a Bat-fan or a fan of good comics, they’re well worth tracking down!
So there’s the list. The Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever (that aren’t Year One or Dark Knight Returns). What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Does anything not belong there? Leave a comment and let us know!

The New 52 Continuity: It ain't so bad!

A common criticism of DC Comics' recent relaunch, The New 52 is that continuity is a mess. Click on almost any message board discussion or blog entry that's critical of The New 52 and you'll find someone pointing out some of the many contradictions and problems thrown up by the reboot. Common questions include;

  • How could Batman have gone through all those Robins if he's only been active for five years?
  • How come the original Titans are referenced in Red Hood & the Outlaws #1, despite having never existed?
  • Why is Tim Drake referred to as a former Robin when he's always supposed to have been Red Robin?
  • Where does Batman Inc fit into all this?
  • What big events still happened and how can certain characters exist without them?
  • Where are Stephanie Brown, Wally West and Donna Troy?

There are certainly still knots to unravel with regards to continuity, particularly in the Bat-Universe where characters like Batman's ten-year old son, Damien Wayne, seem to fly in the face of the new five year timeline. But I would hesitate to say that this is evidence that DC Comics don't know what they're doing, or have planned all this in a slap-dash fashion at the last minute. In order to explain why I feel this isn't the case, let's take a look at DC's last big continuity reboot, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis was a 12 issue maxi series that ran from April 1985 to March 1986. Like The New 52 it rebooted continuity in the DC Universe and started the timelines of many characters from scratch. But these changes didn't happen all at once. In fact many of them didn't occur until several years after Crisis had finished. Let's take a look at some of these changes;
  • Power Girl was a resident of Earth 2, a planet that was obliterated from existence during Crisis. For almost a year Power Girl was a girl without a past until Secret Origins #11 (February 1987) established that she was actually from ancient Atlantis. Her origin was still being tinkered with as recently as 2005.
  • Batman and Catwoman's new origins didn't appear until Batman: Year One, the first chapter of which was published in February 1987. Jason Todd, the second Robin's new origin appeared shortly afterwards in Batman #408 (June 1987). For a year DC were still writing about the previous versions of these characters. Indeed, the previous version of Catwoman had featured as recently as January 1987 in Detective Comics #570
  • Much like Wally West, Stephanie Brown and Donna Troy today DC had no idea what do with the Justice Society of America in 1986 and so they were literally packed off to limbo until 1992.
  • Hawkman and Hawkwoman made several appearances in Justice League International throughout the late '80s until DC decided that they needed an update too. This occurred in Tim Truman's excellent Hawkworld miniseries in 1989. This mini-series and the ongoing series that followed it established that Hawkman and Hawkwoman were recent visitors to Earth, and their appearances in JLI were retroactively established to have been made by Thanagarian spies.
  • Wonder Woman had been killed off during Crisis and a big relaunch of the character was in the works. Unfortunately the big relaunch wasn't to be ready until February 1987. DC needed to publish at least four issues of a Wonder Woman title a year or the rights to the character would revert to the Estate of her creator, William Marston. The result was The Legend of Wonder Woman, a four part mini-series published in 1986 in which Wonder Woman's mother looked back on the adventures of her deceased daughter.
  • Aquaman received a new origin in The Atlantis Chronicles (1990). This completely contradicted a re-telling of his origin that had appeared after Crisis in a mini-series in 1986.

I'm by no means criticising the DC Comics of the 1980s but what I wanted to illustrate is that the rebooting of a fictional Universe is obviously a mammoth task. In the '80s it took several years before all of the many changes unfolded and settled into the DC Universe that many of us grew up with. Compare that with what DC have tried to achieve with The New 52. Fifty two titles, all relaunched from issue #1 in the same month, all occupying the same Universe. The fact that there's even anything resembling coherence at all between these titles is a testament to the hard work of the creators and editors at DC Comics. They're trying to accomplish something that took several years to achieve the last time they tried it. Personally I think they've done a pretty good job, but I'm not surprised that there are still inconsistencies. It would frankly be a miracle if there weren't.

So for those of you who don't like The New 52, I wouldn't dream of trying to change your mind, but there is one thing I would ask of you. Be a bit less judgemental in regards to continuity, because I would argue that DC continuity makes a damn sight more sense a year into The New 52 than it did a year after Crisis on Infinite Earths! 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Why The Curse of Shazam is the right move for Captain Marvel

The Curse of Shazam! as featured on the cover of Justice League #0 & drawn by Ivan Reis

Since April 2012 DC Comics have been publishing a back up strip in Justice League that chronicles the adventures of a rebooted Captain Marvel. The Curse of Shazam has given us a radically different interpretation of Captain Marvel and his world. In fact, he's not even called Captain Marvel any more, just plain old Shazam. As you can imagine these changes have caused some controversy. Fans have been very vocal in decrying this somewhat darker, more adult take on what has traditionally been an innocent, child-friendly character. I have to say however, I've been enjoying the changes and I'd go as far as to say that DC should have done something like this with the character decades ago.

It may surprise you to learn that Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero of the 1940s. His comics were even outselling Superman at one point! It's not hard to see why the story of Captain Marvel struck a chord with so many people. His origin is probably every kid's fantasy. An old wizard grants young Billy Batson the ability to turn into an adult superhero, Captain Marvel, by uttering the wizard's name, SHAZAM! Billy was soon joined by his sister, Mary Marvel, and a sidekick, Captain Marvel Jr. The Marvel Family's adventures were so popular that even Elvis Presley was a fan. Elvis was such a big fan of Captain Marvel Jr. in particular that he based his haircut, his insignia and many of his costumes on the character.

So where did all go wrong? Blame DC Comics. They sued Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement, alleging that Cap was a rip-off of Superman. By 1953 Fawcett had ceased publishing all of their Captain Marvel comics due, at least partly, to the law suit. Then in 1972 the cheeky gits at DC licensed the characters and started publishing their own Captain Marvel comic (although the existence of a Marvel Comics character of the same name forced them to name the comic Shazam!). By 1991 they had acquired all the rights to the characters and Captain Marvel was a fully integrated part of the DC Universe. It could be argued that this was to the character's detriment.

Captain Marvel was never to achieve the popularity he saw in the 40s ever again and it's not hard to see why. He was always billed as "The World's Mightiest Mortal", but now he was sharing a world with Superman. As long as Superman, DC's flagship character, was in the same Universe as Cap then Cap would always be second best. If he wasn't the "World's Mightiest Mortal" then what was he? Granted, up until 1986 Cap had his own parallel Earth to live on, Earth S, but he and Superman still essentially existed alongside each other and the two characters often teamed up. 

Since 1972 Captain Marvel has been a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of the DC Universe. Cap's world was a world of wizards, talking tigers and evil worms from Venus and his adventures had a completely different tone from those of the DC Universe. Imagine Spider-Man and his supporting characters were taken from Marvel Comics and integrated into the DC Comics Universe. Could you keep writing the same kind of stories for the character? Would he be as popular as he is now? DC had a hero that worked according the the rules and context set by Fawcett Comics and they were now trying to make him work according to the rules and context of DC Comics.

Cap is contrasted with the boorish Guy Gardner in Adventures of Superman #488 (1992)

Despite all this Captain Marvel still seemed to work well as a supporting character. In the 70s he was another heavyweight for Superman to team up with or fight, while in the 80s, 90s and 2000s he was an innocent character that harked back to a bygone age that DC could use to contrast with their more contemporary characters. But in his own comic the tone never seemed right. The character was originally based around wish fulfilment but this aspect had been lost. DC were so busy playing up the "innocent character from a bygone era" angle that Billy Batson now resembled no one who was likely to be reading the comic, even the kids. DC were also making clumsy attempts to make the character edgier by playing up the "homeless orphan" angle. These attempts always seemed to fall flat however when played alongside the aforementioned "innocent" aspect of the character. You can't have a character boasting that he's "from the streets" one minute and then exclaiming "Holy Moly" the next.

"I've lived on the streets"


It seemed like DC wanted to make him edgier but were reluctant to give up the more innocent aspects of the character. They couldn't have it both ways and it was time to choose a direction for the character; innocent or edgy. And finally, in 2012, DC chose. With The Curse of Shazam DC have abandoned the sweeter, more innocent aspects of the strip completely and finally fully embraced a take that's more adult and much grimmer. Billy's inherent nobility is buried under a layer of bitterness and teen angst while the wizard Shazam is yellow toothed and creepy. I'm thoroughly enjoying this take on the character. Billy seems to have a proper character arc ahead of him, with his more noble side being teased out gradually by his new family. It also seems like his super-powered alter ego will have a more clearly defined role in the DC Universe, with DC promising to remove the "circus strongman" elements of the character that invite comparison with Superman, and play up the magic and fantasy aspects.

What a silly Billy!

But was this really the right way to go? Why did DC have to embrace the grimmer side of the character when they could just as easily embraced the more innocent, child-friendly side? It's a question that's worth asking, especially considering works such as Jeff Smith's Monster Society of Evil prove that there are great stories to be told with a child-friendly, all-ages Captain Marvel. I would argue that it's perhaps pointless pushing the character in an all ages direction when there just isn't a suitable format for those stories. If I was a parent who didn't read comics I would be very reluctant to go to a specialist comics shop to spend at least two to three pounds on a twenty page pamphlet for my kids. If Captain Marvel comics are to be directed at kids then they need to be easily accessible and in a format that offers value for money. It just so happens that my pals Duy Tano and Pol Rua have some great ideas about what that format should be. Until such a format exists however I believe that The Curse of Shazam offers the only take on the character that could conceivably work in the context of the current state of the DC Universe and the current comics distribution system.

With all the drastic changes brought about by Captain Marvel's recent reboot, the most controversial one seems to be the changing of his name from Captain Marvel to Shazam. DC's official reason for this is that "everybody thinks he's called Shazam already, outside of comics." On the surface this seems like a silly reason. When I was a kid I used to think that the Thing was called Rock Man, but I wouldn't expect them to change the character's name as a result of this. But I suspect that the real reasons for the name change make a lot more sense. It's no secret that DC have had a Shazam movie in the works for ages.  Ask yourself, are Warner Brothers (whose current big rivals in the cinemas are Marvel Comics and their owners, Disney) really going to pour money into making and promoting a superhero film with a lead character named Marvel? If Cap comes to the big screen he's almost certainly going to be called Shazam, so why not reflect that in the comics?

But whatever he's called, I would argue that DC's current direction for the character is for the best. For years Captain Marvel has been straddling two different styles, innocent and edgy, and it's held the character back! DC finally have the courage to let go of the past and take the character into uncharted waters. Maybe one day we'll see the return of a sweeter Cap and I would dearly love for there to be a suitable place in the world of comics for such a character. But for now I'm happy to see where our darker, new Shazam is headed. Hopefully to Hollywood!

I'm indebted to Duy Tano and his Comics Cube for a lot of the info used in this article. If you want to read more about Captain Marvel then give The Cube a look. In this article I've echoed many of the sentiments expressed in Duy's A Sense of Wonder: Why DC Has Failed to Successfully Incorporate Shazam! into the DC Universe although we differ on the merits of The Curse of Shazam. Duy also addresses the similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel in Reclaiming History: Superman Vs. Captain MarvelDuy also discusses his personal connection to the character in What Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family Mean to Me. Well worth a read!