Thursday, 14 October 2010

Three Comics That Shaped My Life

I've always disliked it when critics and bloggers describe a piece of pop culture as important. Once in a while a piece of work may come along that changes the way we think about a particular medium, but to dub that piece important just seems like pretentious hyperbole to me. For example, Revolver's a great album, but it hasn't cured any major diseases yet. And yet the following three comics are important, at least they are to me. I can honestly say that more than any other piece of pop culture, these three comics have helped to shape me into the person I am today.

The Beano #2354 (1987)

The 29th of August 1987 is a very important day for me. It's the day my old Nan bought her grizzling six year old grandchild the latest copy of The Beano in an effort to get him to shut up for five minutes. It was a gesture that was to begin a lifetime of comic collecting! The Beano introduced me to the joy of regularly following a comic and looking forward to 'comic day'. It also introduced me to the wonderful concept of a group of characters sharing their own universe. But more than anything else The Beano was very, very funny and helped to shape my sense of humour.

One of my favourite strips was Tom Paterson's Calamity James. James is the world's unluckiest boy. He is constantly followed around by his own personal rain cloud and each week finds himself the victim of some disaster or other. His only friend is his pet, Alexander Lemming, who is always looking for things to plummet from. The great thing about Calamity James wasn't just the bleak humour surrounding James' adventures but also the weird little things going on in the background of each panel that would usually go by unnoticed by the main characters. For example one panel might depict James stepping obliviously over bags of cash or gold bars while another panel might have a fly buzzing out of James' trousers carrying away his underpants. One of the best recurring background gags were the Little Squelchy Things. These were little blobs with faces that appeared in a variety of different guises, from Scottish Squelchy Things in tartan berets to cheeky Squelchy Things showing their bums.

The Beano 2316 (1986)

Calamity James wasn't the only Beano strip to display this unique humour however. There were jokes and situations that were just as surreal to be found in strips such as Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger and Baby-Face Finlayson (a baby dressed as a cowboy who would commit crimes in a motorised pram). I believe the following panel from The Bash St. Kids sums up everything I loved about The Beano more than anything else.

Many thanks to Zeg The Dalek and the members of The Beano Project for their help in tracking down my very first Beano.

Batman Monthly #1 (1988)

The following year my dear old Nan was once again forced to dip into her purse in order to silence her moany grandchild. This time her purchase opened my eyes to the wonderful world of superheroes! The first issue of Batman Monthly contained a reprint of the first two issues of The Untold Legend of The Batman a story that covered every detail of Batman's world. The origins of Batman, Robin, Alfred and a whole bunch of villains and supporting characters are found in this story and I absolutely loved it. It introduced me not only to superhero comics but also to the wonderful experience of laboriously poring over the backstories of fictional characters in a slightly obsessive manner.

It was quite a while however before I fully embraced the world of superheroes. My dad had a pile of old DC and Marvel comics that I'd always been too scared to read. I must confess that I was rather a sensitive/wimpy child. I once burst into uncontrollable tears of fear at a screening of The Shaggy D.A. on a wet afternoon in primary school. As a result of my sensitivity/wimpiness, I was always too scared to read my dad's comics for fear of seeing something that might upset me. I even taped the last few pages of Batman Monthly #1 together so I could read the issue without fear of seeing the images of Joker and Two-Face that lay at the end of the comic. The day soon came however when the love of the story overcame my fear and I cut the tape binding the these pages. Once I had confronted my fears I realised there was nothing to be scared of and it wasn't long before I was digging into my father's comics. A lifetime of superhero fun followed.

Two of the pages that frightened little ol' me

Batman Monthly #1 taught me that confronting my fears can lead to a world of wonderful experiences. Unfortunately only this week I read Garth Ennis' Crossed and learned that I was right to be scared. Comics are terrifying and traumatic and can leave you with scars that will never heal. Oh well.

Crossed #9 with art by Jacen Burrows

JLA: New World Order (1997)

It was ten years after my first Beano, and I'd drifted away from comics and superheroes somewhat. It was for a variety of a reasons. Firstly, there was a lot of crap out there. I'd never really been a fan of the whole Image Comics style over substance approach that was so influential back then. Even as a kid I wanted more from my comics than guns and pouches and boobs. The last trade paperback I'd bought had been DC's Zero Hour in 1994 and, as I've previously discussed on this blog, it had left me scratching my head in bewilderment. But it wasn't just comics that had turned bad. I had too. Like many young men in their teens I had transformed over night into a complete arsehole. Being generally unpleasant to people took up most of my day, leaving me little time to enjoy comics.

That was the case until the day I found myself with a bit of spare cash and bought a CD, Kula Shaker: K and Grant Morrison and Howard Porter's JLA: New World Order. Crispian Mills' opus has long since been donated to some charity shop where I imagine it probably still remains. New World Order on the other hand is still one of my favourite comics to this day.

In the mid-eighties DC began to populate the Justice League with second stringers such as Blue Beetle and Captain Atom rather than the big guys like Superman and Batman. Initially the exploits of the new line up were very entertaining but by the mid '90s the original writers, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis had left and characters like Nuklon, Bloodwynd and Triumph were roaming the halls of Justice League HQ. There was nothing really wrong with these characters and there were still some great stories to be told (Dan Jurgens run on Justice League America stands out as particularly good). However, none of it really felt like proper Justice League. I had grown up on my dad's copies of Satellite era JLA and by the time Zero Hour came out I was yearning for some big names to join the League.

That was exactly what Morrison gave us with New World Order, the return of the seven founding members, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter. Not only that but Morrison gave us the return of the 'punch-the-air-with-joy' moments that had long since disappeared from mainstream superhero comics. It seemed that everyone was so busy trying to copy the success of Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Claremont and Lee's X-Men #1 back then that they'd forgotten that comics were occasionally supposed to be fun. New World Order seemed different. As I read Batman taking on a bunch of Martians, Flash defeating an evil speedster with a Flash-Fact and Superman inspiring the entire world to fight off a Martian invasion I was literally punching the air with excitement. I remember telling a friend at the time "I didn't know they made comics like this any more!"

After New World Order I was back into comics in a big way and have remained so ever since. This may sound a bit wanky but reading that comic was also the moment I began to remember who I was before the horrors of puberty and comprehensive school. I began to get further away from Paul the Teenage Bastard and closer to becoming the sort of person I wanted to be. I'm not saying I'd still be a git if I hadn't bought that comic, and I'm not saying that I'm a perfect, well adjusted person now. But reading New World Order was definitely the beginning of a period in which I did a lot of growing up. With this new found maturity came the realisation that being deliberately unpleasant to people is bad, comics are awesome and Kula Shaker are shit.

So what about you? What are the comics that have shaped your life? Leave a comment and let me know.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Should Spider-Man Age and Die?

I recently got involved in a conversation on the Bleeding Cool forums regarding Spider-Man: One More Day. Being the only bugger on the internet who actually likes that story I occasionally feel obliged to stick up for it (I've even written a post doing just that) but as usual I was soon crushed by the weight of popular opinion. My puny arguments were no match for the legions of comic fans out there who believe that Joe Quesada is motivated by a personal dislike for each and every one of them and that producing a comic that they don't like is the moral equivalent of drowning kittens in acid.

Actually I'm being more than a little unfair. My own arguments actually were quite puny and didn't amount to much more than "but I like it" (imagine that said in a Droopy voice). Quite a few of the posters on the thread had many valid criticisms of the story and many compelling arguments as to why Spidey should have remained married. The thread itself is in response to a passionate and very well written essay by a fan who's dismayed with the current direction of Peter Parker's adventures. True, the thread now seems to have descended into nerdy number-crunching of the sales figures and personal criticisms of Mark Millar and Chuck Austen (for some reason), but for a while there it was intriguing stuff.

There was one particular point that was made by several posters that really got me thinking. They argued that Spider-Man should have been allowed to age and mature throughout his adventures and eventually the series should have come to a natural conclusion. The absence of the character would then create a vacuum that would have to be filled by new heroes for each new generation of fans. The specific examples that were given of this practice in action were Dragonball and Judge Dredd although I'm sure there are more.

This really got me thinking. Obviously it's very unlikely that the adventures of characters such as Spider-Man, Superman or Batman will ever be allowed to come to a finish. Spidey will forever be in his early twenties and Batman and Superman will always be in their thirties simply because they're not just characters, they're brands. The characters in the comics have to have at least a passing resemblance to the characters in the cartoons and movies, or on the lunchboxes. This is perfectly understandable, but is it right?

Financial concerns aside, can a character's story truly be of any worth if it's never allowed to finish? Robin Hood was killed by a treacherous prioress and King Arthur was clobbered over the head by Mordred. Aren't their adventures made all the richer because of these inevitable endings? It's very telling that Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns provide non-canonical endings to the adventures of Superman and Batman respectively and are two of the most critically acclaimed comic book stories of all time. You could also argue that allowing a character to age and mature makes him easier to identify with than a character who's perpetually going through the trials of a twenty year old. There's also a larger scope for telling different kinds of stories. A forty year old Spider-Man could have adventures that a twenty year old Spidey couldn't. Creatively speaking there's certainly an argument to be made for this approach to the characters.

But I'm very much playing devil's advocate in the above paragraph. I don't want to see Spider-Man, Superman or Batman age. I don't want their adventures to end. I'd go as far as to say that I enjoy the cyclical nature of the character's adventures. There's something very comforting in the familiarity. That's not to say that mainstream superhero comics are completely repetitive. Grant Morrison is a good example of a writer who will always find an interesting and unfamiliar twist to an old formula. But when all is said and done Clark Kent will inevitably return to the Daily Planet, Bruce Wayne will come home to Wayne Manor and Peter Parker will probably never celebrate his thirtieth birthday. And I quite like that.

So what does all this mean? Is allowing their most popular characters the chance to finish their stories really the answer to all of DC and Marvel's problems? Am I part of the problem? Have the demands of fanboys like me sent mainstream comics up a creative cul-de-sac? Will this creative bankruptcy inevitably lead to the comics' industry's demise?

I don't know.



I feel a bit guilty now.

What do you think?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Superman's Secret Identity: In Defense of Those Glasses!

Superman #330 art by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte

Fellow blogger and internet chum X-Man75 has written a great post on his blog discussing which cities of the DC and Marvel Universe contain the dumbest residents.  He argues that the residents of Metropolis must be among the dumbest, particularly the journalists of the Daily Planet and Lex Luthor, because of their failure to recognise Superman and Clark Kent as one and the same.  After all, how can a pair of glasses make you look like a different person?  This is one of the main observations that most people have made regarding Superman over the years, it is however one I would dispute.  In fact I would go as far as to say that pulling off such a disguise successfully would be perfectly possible in real life.

DC Comics have attempted to explain away the apparent flimsiness of Superman's disguise on a number of occasions.  Lois Lane's attempts to confirm her suspicions regarding Clark's secret were a staple of Superman's Silver Age adventures.  Perhaps this was the writer's way of saying "Look, she at least suspects, she's not a complete idiot!"  By the end of each story however Superman had put Lois' suspicions to rest (at least for another month) usually through the aid of a Superman robot.  Sometimes Batman put her off the scent by wearing a rubber Superman mask, which he of course wore over his own bat-eared mask.  In Action Comics #597 (1988) Ma and Pa Kent confronted Lois' suspicions by telling her that they raised both Clark and Superman at the same time.  Frankly I find it easier to believe that Lois would be fooled by Batman's magic chin putty than by the Kents' unlikely tale.

Action Comics #650 art by Curt Swan

What about Lex Luthor?  Why would the cleverest man on the planet be taken in by a pair of glasses.  John Byrne gave us the definitive answer to this in 1987 in Superman #2.  Lex built a super computer and hired a team of scientists to work out the secrets of the Man of Steel.  The computer's conclusion was one simple sentence.  Clark Kent is Superman.  Lex refused to believe it.  Apparently Lex is such an arrogant bastard that he refuses to believe that a man with such power would want to pose as as a mere mortal. Grant Morrison took this one step further in All Star Superman.  During this series Clark actually takes his glasses off and shouts in Lex's face.  Lex is so blinded by arrogance that he literally can't see what's right in front of him.  Amusingly this series also contains a scene in which Clark reveals his secret identity to Lois and she also refuses to believe that meek, clumsy Clark could be the super-man of her dreams.

All Star Superman #5 art by Frank Quietly

Possibly the least satisfying explanation for the success of Clark's disguise came in 1978, in Superman #330.  In this issue it's revealed that Clark is unwittingly hypnotising everyone he meets to see him as a skinny wimp whenever he wears his glasses.  This effect also works on photographs of Clark and assumably on Batman's latex rubber Clark Kent masks.  The hypnotic effect lingers for awhile, even when Superman loses his powers.  I find the notion that someone as powerful as Superman is wandering around messing with everyone's perception of reality without even realising he's doing it quite disturbing.  Even in that really dodgy bit in Superman II when Superman hypnotises Lois into forgetting they'd had sex, Superman is at least in control and responsible for his actions.  But in the comics Superman could accidentally lobotimise you just by putting his glasses on!  Unsurprisingly this aspect of the Superman myth has been completely ignored over the years. 

Superman #330 art by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte

In my opinion all this apologising DC Comics have done over the years for the glasses disguise is completely uneccessary.  I have no problem accepting that a man could disguise himself from even those closest to him simply by wearing his hair different, changing his posture, body language and voice and putting on a pair of glasses.

Let's put it this way.  Imagine you worked with me in a London office.  Imagine I looked exactly like Prince William except I had a beard.  You may have noticed these similarities when observing pictures of him in the press.  You may have met William on several occasions and noticed these similarities up close and in person.  You may even have noticed that I've never been around during all the royal visits the young Prince has made to our hypothetical office.  But would you really seriously consider it likely that the heir to the British throne puts on a fake beard and comes into work every day and inputs data into spreadsheets and drinks his coffee white with no sugars and has a crush on the office temp and discusses last night's episode of Doctor Who with you over his lunch of marmite sandwiches and so on and so on.  Of course you wouldn't!  Why would Prince William do that?! Why would anyone?!  Now take this hypothetical scenario and replace me with Clark Kent and Prince William with Superman.  See what I'm getting at?

Just for the record, I don't look like Prince William and I don't work in an office.

This post is ultimately unneccessary however.  The most compelling defense of Superman's secret identity has already been argued successfully by one man.  Christopher Reeve, with his brilliant performance as Clark Kent/Superman in the Superman movies.  Take for example the scene in the first movie where Clark almost reveals his secret to Lois, or the scene in Superman II where Clark actually does reveal his secret to her.  Reeve doesn't just take his glasses off (Dean Cain please take note).  He takes off the glasses, broadens his shoulders, deepens his voice and seems to grow a foot in height!  If I was working alongside Reeve's Clark I'm confident that I'd be living in complete ignorance of his double life.

Christopher Reeve- Better than Dean Cain

So what do you think?  Never mind 'You will believe a man can fly'.  Have I convinced you that a man can fool the world with a pair of glasses?  Or am I letting my love of the character blind me to the bleedin' obvious, much like Lex Luthor's hatred and arrogance blinds him?  Leave a comment and let me know your opinion.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Flash Fact: Wally West is brilliant but it's time for Barry Allen

Barry Allen

In 1985 Barry Allen, The Flash, died saving the Universe. The mantle of The Flash was taken up by his sidekick Wally West, who served as DC Comics' main Flash until 2006 when Barry Allen's grandson Bart briefly took over.  Wally soon returned as the Flash but was joined in 2008 by a resurrected Barry Allen.  Barry is now once again the main Flash, while Wally has taken something of a back seat and is currently not appearing regularly in any DC titles.  This is a controversial move among Flash fans as Wally has developed quite a devoted following over the past 25 years.  I would argue however that DC has made the right decision.  Barry needed to come back and Wally needs some time away, but not because of any failing on the part of Wally as a character.  In fact I would say that Wally has been too well written for his own good.

When The Flash was relaunched in 1987 writer Mike Baron wrote Wally West as a promiscuous, arrogant prat, as far removed in personality from Barry Allen as any character could be.  This was a genius move for many reasons.  For a start, if Wally had been exactly the same as Barry then Barry's death would have been rendered pointless.  Also, this was the mid '80s and in making Wally a bit of a selfish womaniser, Baron very much made him your quintessential '80s man. But the biggest advantage of portraying Wally as a bit of an arsehole was the fact that we got to see Wally grow and mature before our very eyes as the series progressed.

Wally West

When Baron left after issue 14, William Messner-Loebs took over and carried on developing and maturing Wally.  Under Messner-Loebs we saw Wally humbled and forced to temporarily live on the streets.  We saw him begin to appreciate his friends more and become less of a user.  We saw his relationship with his clingy mother and wannabe super-villain father develop.  By the time Messner-Loebs left the book Wally was a much more likeable guy. But his journey wasn't over.  Mark Waid was the next writer to chronicle Wally's adventures and he continued to send Wally on his path to maturity. Under Waid for example, Wally ended his womanising and began to settle down with a long term girlfriend, journalist Linda Park.  But Waid also did something very important.  Waid recognised that while Wally had worked through a lot of his issues there was still something he had yet to come to terms with.  The legacy of Barry Allen. During Waid's run we saw Wally come to terms with Barry's death and grow comfortable with the fact that he was beginning to surpass his mentor in terms of both power and achievement.

Wally West

Wally's understanding and control of his speed was very much tied to this emotional journey he was taking.  When Baron reintroduced the character his top speed was 705 mph and he had to eat and drink huge amounts in order to replenish the energy he expended while running.  We gradually got to see Wally get faster and faster and look more closely into the nature of his powers as he did so.  Messner-Loebs first indicated that there may be more to Wally's powers than meets the eye when he had Wally's scientist friend, Tina McGee note that Barry Allen's powers were physically impossible and he may have become something other than human when he gained his powers.  Waid took this idea and developed it further. He had Wally meet Max Mercury, a Golden Age speedster who was the zen guru of speed.  Under Max's tutelage Wally discovered the Speed Force, the extra-dimensional source of all super speed. Wally soon learnt to control the Speed Force and gained speed and abilities beyond anything any speedster had achieved previously.

Flash v2 Annual #3 (1989) - Even before Mark Waid established the Speed Force William Messner-Loebs had sown the seeds.

By the time Waid left and Geoff Johns took over Wally had married Linda and become a master of the Speed Force.  Johns took some of the focus away from Wally and concentrated on the development of other characters.  For example, Flash's famous Rouge's Gallery enjoyed more character development under Johns than they had ever experienced before.  Despite this Johns continued to allow Wally to change and grow.  During Johns' run Wally began to forge an identity for himself as a blue collared hero of the people with his feet planted firmly on the ground.  He also regained his secret identity and fathered twins with Linda.

Wally and Linda tie the knot

The wonderful thing about Wally's Flash series was that despite the change of writers Wally underwent a real journey over the course of two decades, with characterisation that was so consistent that he is perhaps one of the most fully realised characters in the DC stable.  However, it is this wonderful character development that has proved the character's undoing.  After undertaking the journey from a selfish underpowered hothead to a super powerful, heroic and responsible father of two, Wally has nowhere else to go as a character, at least for the moment.  This was proven by the way the character has floundered somewhat over the past five years or so.  First he was replaced by Bart Allen as the Flash and then he returned in some very underwhelming Mark Waid penned stories.  It was hard not to get the impression that DC had no idea what to do with Wally.  This is why I totally agree with DC's decision to bring Barry Allen back to life and take Wally out of the limelight for a while.  I would much prefer not to see Wally for a bit rather than see him star in a bunch of mediocre, directionless stories or worse still, get killed off.

Barry and Wally in Flash:Rebirth

As for Barry, Geoff Johns has done a fantastic job of returning him to the DC Universe.  Flash: Rebirth, the story in which Barry's return is explained, sold well but has had it's fair share of online detractors.  Personally I loved it.  Johns establishes that while Wally is the master of the Speed Force, Barry is its source.  Barry actually generates the Speed Force with each step he takes.  The Speed Force reaches through time, which explains why Barry's predecessor, Jay Garrick is also connected to it.  This, in my opinion, is a fantastic continuation of themes established not only during Waid's run but as far back as Messner-Loebs' run, when Tina McGee questioned Barry Allen's status as a human being.  It is also incredibly apt in the way it mirrors real life.  Without Barry, Jay Garrick would probably have been forgotten and Wally would never have been created.  Barry is very much the source of Wally and Jay's "power" in reality, as well as in the pages of the comic.

Barry Allen

Flash: Rebirth also sees the return of Barry's arch enemy, Professor Zoom, The Reverse Flash.  It seems that Zoom is powered by a negative Speed Force and is responsible for Barry's return.  Zoom wanted to not only undermine Barry's myth by negating his sacrifice but also to continue making Barry's life a misery.  Zoom actually goes back in time and kills Barry's mother, framing his father for the crime.  The mystery surrounding his mother's death and the desire to clear his father's name drives Barry into a career as a police scientist and strengthens his desire for justice.  With this tweak of continuity Johns has made Barry a far deeper character than he was when he died.  This change also helped to further distinguish Barry from Wally, who is motivated more from the love of his powers and the desire to carry on Barry's legacy than from tragedy.   

Professor Zoom

Geoff Johns' new Flash series starring Barry Allen has been brilliant so far.  It's certainley slower paced than Johns' Wally stories, but I think that has more to do with the differences between Barry and Wally as characters than any failing on Johns' part.  Thanks to Johns, and Barry of course, The Flash comic has a clear identity and direction once again.  In fact, Johns is building up to a big Flash-related event in 2011, Flashpoint.  But I'm sure Wally's story isn't over.  In 1985 DC felt they could go no further with Barry Allen and so they killed him off and he remained dead for 23 years.  Despite his absence from the books, Wally is very much still alive and I remain confident that it will be a lot sooner than 23 years before we see him take an active role in the DC Universe once again.

Monday, 19 July 2010

How I learned to love The Legion of Superheroes

The Legion of Superheroes are a group of super powered individuals from a thousand years in the future who came from all over the universe to follow the example of Superboy and fight for justice. Despite this relatively simple premise the Legion probably have one of the most complicated backstories in comics. For a start there are three different versions of them, and with over fifty members and over fifty years of stories it can seem a little daunting to anyone approaching the Legion for the first time. As a result the Legion pretty much split fans down the middle. You either love 'em or hate 'em, like a superhero version of Marmite or Morrissey.

I was introduced to the Legion for the first time as a kid by a couple of my father's old copies of Adventure Comics. One was a story containing the origin of Sun Boy, while the other was a story about the death of Beast Boy, one of the Heroes of Lallor. I absolutely loved these stories and read them so much that the covers fell off the comics. Every members' super-power seemed so cool and there were so many things that intrigued me about each one. I remember being particularly intrigued by Mon-El. This guy's as powerful as Superboy!? What's the deal? Is he Superboy's brother? I was hooked.

I was later given a bunch of old comics by my R.E. teacher and sure enough there were Legion comics in the pile. One story involved Brainiac 5 going crazy from the pressure of being the smartest guy on the team and using the Miracle Machine to unleash a monster on the Universe. The monster was only stopped by the sacrifice of Matter Eater Lad, who ate the Miracle Machine and was driven insane as a result. These issues left a tremendous impression on me. Brainiac 5 and Matter Eater Lad remain two of my favourite DC characters to this day and the idea of a good guy having a nervous breakdown and turning on his team mates seemed extremely grown up to me at the time.

Sadly by the time I tried to get into what were then current Legion stories it was the early to mid '90s and things had taken a turn for the confusing. Initially I tried getting into what I later found out was the "Five Year Gap" Legion, so called because the stories had jumped forward five years and caught up with a disbanded Legion in a much darker universe. I couldn't understand why there were two Legions, a young version and an adult version where everyone was missing limbs and had designer stubble. Shortly afterwards I tried once again to get into the Legion but by now Legion continuity had been rebooted and everyone had new, funky codenames like Live-Wire, Triad and Apparition, which in my mind robbed the characters of a lot of their charm. Worst still, Matter Eater Lad was demoted to the status of the Legion's resident chef! In 2004 Mark Waid rebooted the Legion once more and I gave the Legion another chance. The old code name's were back and these stories held a lot of promise, but something was still missing.

In fact all of these different versions were probably perfectly decent interpretations of the characters but I was looking to recapture the wonder and fascination I had experienced reading my Dad's old Adventure Comics and these comics just weren't doing it for me. Having said that, I always enjoyed seeing the Legion turn up in other people's comics. I had two favourite Legion guest appearances in particular. The first was Superman: Time and Time Again, in which Superman finds himself bouncing through time and meets the Legion at three different points in their history. The second was Final Night in which the rebooted Legion are trapped in the present day and help reignite the Sun. This story contains some wonderful interaction between Lex Luthor and Brainiac 5, with an arrogant Brainy trying to lord it over Lex with his massive intellect but being thoroughly put in his place by the super-arrogant Luthor. These stories always gave me the impression that I was missing out on something wonderful by not following the Legion regularly. However that feeling I had reading my Dad's Adventure Comics continued to elude me.

That is until 2007 when I read Geoff Johns' Superman and the Legion of Superheroes. Finally, here was the Legion I recognised! Sure, they were older but they were unmistakably the characters I fell in love with as a child. This was confirmed by the utterly brilliant Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, which had nothing to do with Final Crisis but did beat convoluted Legion continuity into something resembling coherency, validated every single incarnation of the Legion and told a fantastic story at the same time. All these years I had been peering over the wall of confusion at this wonderful Legion party going on without me, and if Geoff Johns didn't break down this barrier, he did at least give me a leg up over it and allowed me to join the party.

So why do I love the Legion so much? There are many reasons but here's the main three.

1) The History

The huge continuity that once seemed so daunting now seems like a rich reservoir of storytelling goodness which I can dip into as much or as little as I like. Since Johns reintroduced me to the Legion I've sought out and thoroughly enjoyed the famous Great Darkness Saga, where the Legion go up against the 30th Century version of Darkseid. I've also bought Showcase Presents: The Legion of Superheroes Vol: 1-3 which reprints all the early Legion stuff. These books have allowed me to experience such great Legion moments as the Death of Ferro Lad and the origins of such villains as Computo and the Fatal Five. I've also been able to reexperience those two stories involving Beast Boy and Sun Boy that began my love affair with the Legion.

2) They're like the X-Men but better

The countless members! The wacky powers! The deaths! The dodgy resurrections! The drama! The love! The hate! The Dave Cockrum designed costumes! Everything the X-Men can do the Legion can do better. In the future. With spaceships.

3) The Coolest Super Powers in Comics

For me one of the best things about the Legion is that most of the members have the kind of powers that kids give themselves when they're playing. What kid wouldn't want to grow really big, split into three people, walk through walls, change shape, turn invisible or be really, really, really good at Karate? These are the kind of powers you would wish for if you had a magic wishing lamp, rather than certain other powers like, say, some vague energy based powers involving playing cards.

Recently veteran Legion writer Paul Levitz has begun a new ongoing Legion series and I've been getting it. I've recently been facing some minor financial woe and have been forced to cut my Pull List down slightly. I eventually decided that the Legion was among those comics for the chop. The first two issues have been great but I figured I couldn't miss out on Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin, J. Michael Straczynski's Superman or Aquaman's ongoing adventures in Brightest Day and so the Legion must be sacrificed. I tossed and turned that night in fitful slumber, and by the morning I had decided that I just couldn't drop it and Legion of Superheroes was back on the Pull List. It seems that after years of trying to get into the Legion party I just can't bring myself to leave! And why would I want to? The Legion of Superheroes are awesome! Long may they live!

Somewhere in this pic artist Keith Giffen has hidden Spider-Man. Can you find him?
UPDATE: My fellow blogger and internet chum Kello has kindly agreed to a blog crossover and has written a great post explaining why he doesn't like the Legion.  You can read his rebuttal here.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Superman Vs. Morrissey

A T-shirt featuring this image can be purchased here, at

Because you demanded it! The team up of the century! The ultimate American icon meets the ultimate British icon! Who will triumph?

The original cover is Action Comics #454 (1975) and is by Bob Oksner.  Morrissey and Sandie Shaw are by me.

Update: For similar (but better) Photoshop shenanigans check out The Brave and the Bold: The Lost Issues. Now this is a guy who knows his way around Photoshop and comics a lot better than I do.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Will Self can't spell Aquaman

I have an anecdote that I often bore people to death with involving writer and intellectual Will Self and Aquaman. Now Self may think he's very clever with his award winning novels and his newspaper columns, but I know for a fact that he can't spell the name of our favourite underwater monarch.

About ten years ago he was doing a performance novella in a gallery in Soho. This involved him sitting in the middle of a white room on a raised platform typing a story based on the people who came to see him. Everything he typed into his laptop was visible on a screen. The novella was then published in the Observer. He wasn't allowed to speak to anyone or make eye contact. At the end of it he asked everyone in the room (through typing rather than speaking) one by one what our hopes and fears were. He typed everyone's answers down as they sp
oke. Everyone was trying particularly hard to sound as clever as they could. Most people claimed they were hopeful for world peace. One gentleman claimed he was "fearful for the death of the novel as a medium." Yeah, I'm sure that was really keeping him up at night. I was racking my brains to try and think of something clever and worthy but I'm afraid the only thing I could think of was "I'm fearful 'cos my favourite comic, Aquaman is being cancelled." Dan Jurgens was writing it at the time and I was really enjoying his run. As Self typed my words he spelt Aquaman with a hyphen so I corrected him. As a result I didn't just look like moronic philistine in front of a room full of arty, intellectual Londoners, I looked like a pedantic, moronic philistine. What can I say, I'm even worse when people leave the hyphen out of Spider-Man. I may have looked like a tit , but on the other hand not many people can say they've publicly corrected Will Self's spelling of the word Aquaman.

Does anyone else out there have any stories relating to famous authors and intellectuals and their superhero ignorance? Maybe one of you has explained the Clone Saga to Salman Rushdie or helped Margaret Atwood brush up on her Hawkman continuity. Maybe Noam Chomsky needed you to tell him why the Hulk is sometimes a different colour? Let's hear about it.

Monday, 11 January 2010

I Like Spider-Man: One More Day!

Spider-Man: One More Day was a controversial 2007 story in which Spider-Man and his wife Mary Jane make a deal with the demon Mephisto and sacrifice their marriage to save the life of Aunt May.  Following this story Spidey was said to have never married and is once again depicted as a single man.  The story sparked outrage from Spidey fans and is still regularly lambasted on comic related message boards all over the 'net.

I like it.

That's right! I liked One More Day!  It's not a popular opinion, in fact I may well be the only comic fan in the world who feels this way.  After all even J. Michael Straczynski, the guy who wrote the damn story disliked it so much he had to be talked out of taking his name off the thing.  But I like it.  I've kept quiet since the story was first published for fear of being ridiculed and abused, but last night I did a Google search to see if anybody else shared my opinion.  Here's what I found.

It's my duty, as the only person who actually likes this story to defend it on the internet!

So what is it that I like about the story?  For one thing it's very satisfying to see Peter Parker and Iron Man have a bit of a mini showdown.  While Peter rages at Stark we're reminded that as far as Tony Stark is concerned Peter betrayed him, and it really comes across that Stark is just as hurt as Peter.  There are other cool moments too.  When Jarvis acknowledges his love for May while delivering Stark's cash to the hospital it's genuinely touching.  Another touching moment comes as the doctor looking after May agrees to delay kicking the penniless Parkers out of the ward until Pete finds the cash because Spider-Man once saved his uncle's life.  In a story dealing with the horrible consequences of Pete's life as Spidey it's nice to see him get a little bit of good karma.

Another great OMD moment comes with the involvement of Dr. Strange.  Since resurrections are so common in comics I've always wondered why bereaved heroes didn't ever seek out the nearest wizard, super-science lab or Lazarus Pit and try and ressurect their loved ones themselves.  Here we see Pete doing just that. He tells May's doctor that while medicine can't do anything to save May, his super hero buddies might have a chance.  Of course there's nothing they can do but there is a rather spooky payoff to a Dr. Strange moment set up by JMS much earlier in his Spidey run.

Then there's Pete's decision to enter into a deal with the devil, or Mephisto as he's known in the Marvel Universe.  Many have argued that Pete's decision to trade his marriage for May's life is selfish, unheroic and out of character.  Selfish? Yes. Unheroic? Certainly.  Out of character?  Perhaps not.  We're not meant to see a heroic Peter Parker in this story, we're seeing a man at rock bottom.  There have been loads of stories purporting to depict Spidey at his lowest point, especially in the '90s.  This is the only story in my opinion that actually manages to get Spidey at his lowest possible point.  Small wonder he's reached that point.  During the events leading up to this story he died and came back to life, he revealed his identity to the world, he was forced to betray his country and his mentor, Tony Stark, he was forced to take his family on the run with him, and finally he witnessed his beloved Aunt get shot by a bullet meant for him.  We're not getting Pete at his best here but he's still very much in character.

It's guilt that's finally pushed him down to his lowest point.  The whole reason Peter Parker constantly risks his life as Spider-Man is his sense of responsibility and his guilt over what happened to Uncle Ben.  Now he's facing additional guilt over what happened to May. Peter is well established as a man who holds the weight of the world on his shoulders.  In many ways, guilt is Spider-Man's Kryptonite.  Is it really such a stretch to believe that Peter would be utterly crushed by the thought of being responsible for May's death?  As he says in the story "I'm responsible..and if that's what kills her... I'd break in two."  If you take into account everything that's happened to Peter up to this story then it's perfectly logical and in keeping with his character that he would be at a point where he's the perfect victim for Mephisto. And that's Peter's role in this story, the victim not the hero.  A victim of Mephisto, a victim of a horrible chain of events and a victim of his own sense responsibility.  He's not meant to be the hero.

Mary Jane is the hero of this story.

Mary Jane knows that it doesn't make any sense to sacrifice their marriage to save an old coffin dodger like May.  She tells Peter as much.  But she also knows her husband.  She knows that he's a broken man and having to live with the guilt over May's death on top of everything else that's happened to him, would destroy him.  She also knows that he'll never make this decison without her.  It's MJ who is the first to decide to accept Mephisto's offer.  Peter only does so after she has accepted.  It's MJ who keeps it together enough to ensure that Mephisto promises to make the world forget that Pete is Spidey.  It's MJ who has enough faith in their love to know that they can find each other again, no matter what Mephisto does.  MJ knows that letting May die and telling Mephisto to bugger off would be the sensible decision but she also knows that it's a decision that will prove to be the final nail in her husband's coffin.  And so, she sacrifices her happiness to save her husband's sanity.  You want heroism?  There it is.

I admit that the inclusion of Mephisto into this story isn't particularly satisfying.  For a start he's a magic based villain, something that seems very out of place in a Spidey comic.  But what's the alternative?  Cosmic Cube?  Clones?  I don't see any way to wipe out the marriage that would be completely satisfying.  Which begs the question, why wipe it out at all?

Joe Quesada's reasons for wanting to wipe the marriage can be found here.  Personally I feel that most of the writers just weren't enthused by a married Spidey.  This is evident by the very same-y plots we got involving MJ over the past two decades.  For example how many times has MJ had a stalker?  How many times has Peter felt down but then felt better after a pep talk under a duvet in a dark room?  How many times have we seen MJ standing by the bloody window waiting for Pete to come home?  I've heard it said that if the writers were good then they'd be able to write decent married Spidey stories regardless of their feelings on the matter.  But it stands to reason that a writer is going to produce better work if they're enthused about what they're writing about.  That's not to say that I think every married Spidey story is crap.  J. Michael Straczynski dealt with the relationship in a very enjoyable way.  At the start of his run Pete and MJ were separated and seeing JMS getting them back together was a joy.  Just before One More Day Matt Fraction wrote one of the greatest stories about Pete and MJ's relationship that I've ever read.  It can be found in Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1 and I urge you to track it down and read it.  But we did also get a lot of very similar, very cliched moments involving Pete and MJs relationship over the years, and if unmarrying Spidey is what it takes for the writers to produce their best work then I'm all for it.

Of course, this argument only holds water if you've been enjoying the past couple of years of stories featuring a single Spidey.  Personally I've loved it.  Seeing Pete worrying about girls and living a not too successful bachelor's lifestyle again has been a lot of fun.  I've also loved seeing Pete's supporting cast getting a bit of the limelight. Characters like Betty Brant are getting more development than they've had in years.  The Betty Brant story in Amazing Spider-Man #583 (the famous Obama issue) was brilliant and a perfect example of the kind of story that wouldn't have been as effective if Spidey was married.  I love the fact that Harry Osborn has returned and I love the way stories like American Son are highlighting just why Harry and Pete are such close friends.  Also, MJ is back and she's fun! She's a character in her own right and not just some mopey red head that Peter reads out his inner monologue to.

I just don't get it when I read comic fans lamenting the state of the Spidey books at the moment.  I've read countless posts by people claiming they've read Spidey for twenty plus years and now they've dropped the book.  C'mon is it really so bad?  You're telling me that you stuck with Spidey through Maximum Carnage, the Clone Saga and Chapter One and NOW you're quitting?  I can't help but feel that a lot of fans are cutting their nose off to spite their face.

Spidey and MJ will be reunited though.  One of the best things about OMD is that the door wasn't closed on the marriage once the story ended, there are still plot threads to be picked up.  For example, what exactly did MJ whisper to Mephisto?  It may take a year or it may take twenty years but the Spider-Marriage will return.  So let's quit our complaining and enjoy Spidey comics!