End of the Line: New Universe, Part 2

After the first year, half of the New Universe's original 8 titles were canceled. The titles that survived weren't necessarily the ones that had the most potential, at least on paper.

The fact that Star Brand made the cut was probably more due to the fact that it was the signature book of the line. That didn't stop Marvel from cutting it back to a bi-monthly title. John Byrne came on board in an effort to save it, so the bi-monthly schedule was also, in theory, an effort to give Byrne time to write and pencil the book.

DP7 was far and away the best of the line at that time for a good reason: It had a regular creative team. Writer Mark Gruenwald and penciler Paul Ryan had worked on every issue through the first year and would work on every issue until the book was canceled.

Justice somehow stayed alive. Maybe it was the name. It was completely overhauled, though, as the first year was written off as a dream that the main character had while he was in a coma. Just like the Old Man from Star Brand, it was revealed that Justice was, in fact, human, and not an alien. His new mission was to punish paranormals who misused their powers.

Psi-Force stuck around perhaps on strength of concept alone. Teenage superheroes always had the potential to sell and Psi-Force actually had a diverse cast, something of a rarity in 1986. It irregularly featured early work by Mark Texeira, which meant it was one of the better looking New Universe books.

Cutting the line down to four books meant it was easier to solve the main problem that I've mentioned over and over again: the lack of regular creative teams.

Star Brand lived out its run under John Byrne. Peter David and Lee Weeks took over as the regular team on Justice. Fabian Nicieza took over as the writer on Psi-Force, joined initially by Ron Lim, then later by Rodney Ramos. And DP7 continued under the guidance of Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan.

Sure, aside from Byrne, the rest of the writers were Marvel staffers who no doubt got the gigs in part because of their other jobs, but David, Nicieza, and Gruenwald were all talented creators who put their unique stamps on these titles. David and Nicieza would go on to write some of Marvel's top books, while Gruenwald was already entrenched in his classic run of Captain America.

Of the four books, Psi-Force probably had the best overall run post-culling. Byrne would take Star Brand into some interesting areas with regards to what actual super beings would be like in our world, and then into what unlimited power could really do to someone. The evolution of Ken Connell and the introduction of Ken's child were well done, but the bi-monthly schedule meant that when it was over and done, not much ground had actually been covered.

DP7 probably suffered the most after the line was cut down. While the book had never been laser focused, it still had some through line in its first year. The series became a book about a road trip of sorts, and the cast kept expanding and expanding. Gruenwald and Ryan were great to give each of their characters depth, but that meant veering into the George RR Martin realm of plot, where each character could have held their own series. The cover for the final issue pokes fun at the unwieldy cast, so the creators were at least aware of the problem.

The new version of Justice was substantially better than what came before, but that was a very low bar. But Justice's new goal to police paranormals was a good turn for the character, and allowed him to crossover into other books. It also allowed David and Weeks to dig into the various corners of the New Universe as John Tensen went about his business.

Side note: Of the original 8 New Universe titles, 3 of them starred characters named, respectively, John Tensen, Keith Remsen, and Jenny Swensen. And you will never guess which one of those was Nightmask (hint: Nightmask was about dreams).

But Psi-Force came together better than any of the other books. In Nicieza's first issue as regular writer, he dug into each character, both physically and mentally. He deconstructed their powers and turned them into a very powerful, anti-establishment group that was constantly at odds with governmental agencies. While he may have gone to the well one too many times with the "group is scattered and must find each other" bit (it happens twice in the span of a little over a year), he does so to keep the team evolving. Characters die, characters leave, and new characters join and end up being essential. In the end only one of the first five is on the team; you actually felt like there was a real journey with this title, not just lip service.

Eventually, The New Universe would have to resort to a ploy that most doomed lines of comics would try in an effort to boost sales: drastic upheaval.  Since the mainstream Marvel U had to remain somewhat stagnant, the theory was that this alternate universe was not bound by continuity, IPs, or sales, so they creators could really alter the landscape. For the New Universe, the first step was a double-sized one shot called The Pitt.

Ken Connell, current bearer of the Star Brand and fictional stand-in for his creator and original writer, Jim Shooter, decides to transfer a portion of his power into an inanimate object, much the way that the Old Man did with an asteriod, which in turn led to the White Event. But Connell's plan backfires and he ends up destroying Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his home town and, of course, the home town of Jim Shooter.

Shooter had left Marvel a few months earlier and Marvel basically nuked his home town and made him the cause.

This was in the late 80s, so the U.S. government of the New Universe came to the same conclusion the U.S. government of OUR universe would have: the Soviets did it.

This wasn't the case, but it was motivation enough to start rounding up paranormals to see if they could work as a military unit. This led to the next New Universe one shot, The Draft.

You can probably see where this is headed.

When the line was canceled with issue #32 of the monthly books, a handful of characters would continue on in The War, the final chapter in the thread that had started with The Pitt and run through The Draft. This was an odd way to end the line, as it featured a group of characters who had been shuffled off to the side for months. Aside from the timely intervention of Ken Connell's child (who would disarm the world in the finale), none of the main characters from the New Universe played major parts in what was supposedly the climax to the imprint. On one hand, it was nice that we didn't have to see characters we enjoyed from the main books continue on under the ink and pen of other creators, but at the same time it didn't feel like a proper send off.

The original New Universe characters would pop up here and there in the Marvel Universe proper, pulled in by their former writers. Peter David brought Justice into the world of Spider-man 2099. Mark Gruenwald pulled a handful of characters into the book he was writing at the time, Quasar, as well as ultimately pulling the New Universe into the Marvel multi-verse.

Marvel would later attempt to revise the line with newuniversal, a series that had even less success than the original line, mostly because it was published at random times and never actually finished.

The New Universe's most prominent impact, aside from showcasing new talent that would go on to have impressive careers, would be on display when Jonathan Hickman took over the Avengers. He incorporated the Star Brand and Nightmask, giving both larger, cosmic purposes, and hosts who existed on the Marvel U Earth. The two even received their own, short lived series.

Most recently, James Robinson and Leonard Kirk introduced a new version of the Squadron Supreme to the Marvel U. This team featured orphaned characters from universes that didn't survive Marvel's Secret Wars. Included in their number is Blur, formerly of DP7, a fairly clear indication that the New Universe as we knew it no longer exists.

The New Universe was destined to fail from the start; the fact that even three of its concepts/characters continue to exist in some form 30 years later is amazing, and a testament to the fact that the Big Two will never let IPs completely die.

End of the Line: New Universe, Part 1

I wonder if the New Universe had launched the way it was supposed to, with top of the line creative teams and more support from Marvel, would the superhero fans of 1986 have embraced it? These days “continuity” may be a dirty word for business development executives at the Big Two, but it’s magic for the average superhero comic book reader.  DC is relaunching their entire line yet again because of those average comic book readers who hold continuity to be the be all and end all of superhero stories.

But has it always been this way? The demise of the Ultimate line supports my statement above, but it’s relative longevity suggests that there was a point where stories didn’t have to “matter” to us. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the superhero comic book audience has shrunk over the years, leaving just those of us who are crazy about continuity, that go online to argue why Spider-man couldn’t possibly be a member of the Avengers or that Tim Drake really was Robin once.

The audience for comics in 1986 was substantially larger than it is now, so it’s not unreasonable to think that a fully polished, quality product that existed outside the proper Marvel universe could have done well for a number of years. Unfortunately, we’ll never know, because what we got was nothing like that.

As the story goes, Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter wanted to do something big for Marvel’s 25th anniversary. His initial idea was to reboot the entire thing, starting over with modern versions of the same characters.  The people above Shooter, who saw how well the current version of the Marvel U was selling, shot down his idea, so he came up with a new one: try to repeat the magic of 25 years ago, but with a twist.

This new universe would hem closer to the real world, focusing on one single moment in time that changed everything. The White Event would imbue a finite number of people with fantastic abilities, but that would be it. There were no gods, no monsters, no alien races. And all of this would happen in real time: a year’s worth of stories would cover a year of time.

These are interesting ideas for shared universe superhero comics, but the initial conceit was undermined by one of the inaugural titles (Justice was an alien from another dimension) and the books didn't last long enough for the real time aspect to matter.

The New Universe was supposed to launch with heavy financial investment from Marvel. But Marvel's owners at the time were int he process of trying to sell the company, and it's much easier to sell and company when its profits are high. Investing in an unproven line of comics was too risky of a move, so the big budget for the New Universe was drastically cut.

The end result was creative teams made up of Marvel staffers, newcomers, and veterans that had been pushed out by the Big Two. Even worse, few of the titles had consistent creative teams. It wasn't just the art teams, either, from issue to issue you never knew who was going to be the writer. It's hard to generate any kind of coherent narrative when different people were putting the stories together every month.

The eight titles that formed the New Universe were:

Spitfire and the Troubleshooters

Since the New Universe was supposed to stick with technology that was relatively close to what existed in our world (in 1986), a comic about an Iron Man-style power suit was going to be problematic. Yes, it was bigger, bulkier, and less advanced that Iron Man's armor, but it was still well beyond anything that actually existed in the non-fictional world. As will be a reoccurring theme, the book was plagued by meandering stories due to rotating creative teams. It went from being about a college professor, her students, and a super suit, to that same professor and the government organization she now worked for (the the name change to Codename: Spitfire with issue #10).

The book also had 10 different artists, which included legendary artists like Herb Trimpe and Marshall Rogers, as well as early work by some guy named Todd McFarlane. Both the Spitfire armor and it's original pilot, Jenny Swensen, would play big parts in the New Universe even after their title was canceled.

Star Brand

The flagship book and explanation for the White Event, the Star Brand was the name of the tattoo that gave Ken Connell super powers. It was given to him by the Old Man, who originally claimed to be an alien which, again, went against the core tenet of the New Universe.

There's a fairly entrenched belief online that Star Brand was actually good, but having no re-read it multiple times I can state without a doubt that this isn't true. Is it better than most of the others? Definitely, in part because it has a regular creative team, at least for the first six months. The art by John Romita, Jr. goes a long way to making the uninspired story by Jim Shooter more enjoyable.

Star Brand is similar to Roy Thomas' run on Infinity, Inc. in that it's a story about relatively young people by a writer who is not. There's an attempt at edginess in Star Brand that falls flat every time. You get the impression that we're not supposed to find Ken Connell's flaws problematic, we're supposed to think they're cool. His biggest flaw is that he's unable to stop sleeping with attractive women. He has a girlfriend (who has two kids) and a friend with benefits (who is dependent upon him to an unhealthy degree), yet he still ends up sleeping with random women whenever he can.

He's not just an asshole, but an idiot, to boot. He is every guy that ever shoved a comic book reader into a locker and for some reason we're supposed to be interested in what happens in his life.

DP7

Short for Displaced Paranormals 7, DP7 is the story of a group of people trying to deal with their new conditions, specifically by signing up for an institute that claims to be able to help them either control their new abilities or remove them.

The actual best book of the bunch (at least through the 1st year), DP7 had the advantage of having a regular creative team in the form of Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan. It also featured a relatively diverse cast for the time, something it did not shy away from: race was foreground in the series towards the end of the first year. The characters were also a variety of ages and came from varying social and economic backgrounds. Simply from a stand point of life experience, this was as diverse as they came in 1986.

This was also a series that regularly denied its readers a happy ending. There were few concrete climaxes to these stories, because there couldn't be. These seven characters were living with strange conditions that weren't going away. And this was the New Universe, the "real world," so simply putting on a costume and fighting crime wasn't a realistic option.

Justice

Justice is the aforementioned alien from another dimension (where everyone looks like a human and speaks English) who can't get home so he decides to fight evil on our world.

This series had a regular creative team or even, apparently, the slightest idea what it was really, which makes the fact that it would ultimately be rebooted after its first year completely understandable. John Tensen aka Justice had a strong visual look, or at least the beginning of them. His powers looked great, but most of the time he ran around in horrible 80s clothes fighting other people in horrible 80s clothes. And he often fought drug dealers, which made this perhaps the most "of the moment" of the New Universe titles.

Kickers, Inc.

Super powered former football players! Honestly, this concept was surely doomed from the start, regardless of the fact that it had 7 different writers and 6 different pencilers over the course of just 12 issues. Apparently, Co-creator Tom DeFalco wanted to do a book more like Challengers of the Unknown, but Jim Shooter wanted a sports comic, which is what Kickers, Inc. became. This was another title that went against one of the basic tenets of the New Universe, in that it featured futuristic science which gave Kickers, Inc. leader, Jack Magniconte, his powers.

Mark Hazard: Merc

Hard to believe, but this was about a mercenary named Mark Hazard.

The initial crux of this series was that of the titular character trying to balance his professional and personal lives, the latter prominently featuring his ex-wife and son. Hey, it's not easy to make it to a soccer game on time when you're busy killing people for money. That angle was mostly put on the back burner after original writer, Peter David, left the book, replaced by Doug Murray, who focused more on Hazzard's merc adventures. The series had 7 artists over 12 issues and an annual, with the legendary Gray Morrow handling the art for five issues, so at least those are nice to look at.

Nightmask

One of the more thoughtful titles, Nightmask could slip into people's dreams to help them recover from trauma. It made for some trippy stories, although it mostly just dabbled in slightly modified fantasy and horror tropes. Again, the quality was all over the place because the book had 5 different writers for a 12 issue run. Even more impressive? There were 11 different artists! Only Mark Bagley drew more than one issue.

Nightmask would go on to make regular appearances in other New Universe books after his ended.

Psi-Force

If Star Brand was the critical darling (for some reason) and DP7 was actually the best book from the get to, Psi-Force had the most potential, although it wouldn't realize it until well into its second year. It's the story of five teenagers with psychic powers, hunted by various government organizations, hiding out in a halfway house in San Francisco. Oh, and they have the ability to merge together into a creature called Psi-Hawk, who looked somewhat like the man who brought them all together, Emmet Proudhawk, although he died pretty early on.

The essential core of the Psi-Force story wasn't the hackneyed "five merge into one" aspect, which was, thankfully, done away with eventually, but the anti-establishment sentiment running through the team. There was a righteous anger towards authority in these characters that made you wonder why the X-Men were so lax about the fact that they were feared and hated. These kids were feared and hated, too, but they were pissed off about it.

The cast was great, too.  You had a white trash kid, a rich Asian girl, a nerdy white boy, an African American jock, and a Russian girl. Yeah, that was weird, the Russian girl, but it gave the title a global feel. The other characters, though, felt like intentional stereotypes, brought together for the purpose of up ending those ideas. And it worked. The white trash kid became the leader, the spoiled rich girl became the muscle, the African American jock was the heart of the group, and the nerdy white boy...well, he left, actually. The stereotype that no doubt hit closest to home with both the creators and the audience was also the one they couldn't undermine.

This was the punk rock X-Men. Even though it had five different writers over the course of the first year, it managed to feel cohesive. This was in no small part thanks to Mark Texeira, who handled the art for half of that first year. His work was a big reason why Psi-Force managed to survive into year two.

It was clear early on that the New Universe was doomed. A lack of editorial guidance and rotating creative teams made it impossible for any of them to build up any kind of momentum with fans. After the first year, half the line was canceled.

What remained was actually pretty good...

The End of the LIne, an introduction

I have thought about this series of columns for years.

I have a bizarre obsession with lines of comics like, for example, the New Universe or Comics Greatest World or First Wave. I love imprints of interconnected superhero books that ultimately fail. I love tracking down every issue of the line and then reading all of them in the order in which they were released.

It's pathological.

Why do I love these defunct groups of comics so much?

First, the fact that they are no longer has a lot of appeal. They've ended, so I can read them as if they're a single story, even if they're not. And there's something satisfying about being able to read an entire line of comics.

It's also fascinating to watch a pattern unfold with each of these lines. It is always the same. There's enthusiasm to start, the line expands, sales diminish, the line cuts back, there's some big event meant to generate interest, the line is remade (not always relaunched) after said event, it still gets canceled. This happens every time. It's amazing to follow.

I also love what each line of comics says about the time when it was published. They are often a snapshot of what was popular in comics at that time, as a publisher tries to cash in on the latest trend.

So what can you expect from The End of the Line?

Here's what I have set aside to write about so far:

Acclaim
AD&D
Broadway Comics
Comics Greatest World
Continuity Comics
CrossGen
DC Focus
Defiant
First Wave (DC)
Impact
Marvel 2099
MC2
Milestone
New Universe
Project Black Sky
Razorline
Shadowline Saga
Tangent Comics
Ultraverse
Valiant (original)
Weirdoverse

That above list is a starter. You should also note that reviewing the Ultraverse may not happen, as I recently tried to reread those books and Gerard Jones' name is on so much of it that it was really, really hard for me to stomach (Chaos Comics has the same issue).

I'm also open for suggestions of other lines of comics, so let me know what you'd like to see.

As for HOW I'm going to write about these comics, right now I'm thinking I'll do it chronologically, covering each year that the line was alive in a different post. Most of these didn't last more than a few years at a time, so that shouldn't run on forever.

I have no idea what kind of appeal this will have. I can't imagine that, say, a review of the entire Razorline oeuvre will draw in many readers. But it should be something fun to write about after a glass of whiskey.

Next week: The New Universe!

 

Knightfall and the evolution of 90s event comics

Denny O'Neil, who was the Batman group editor at the time of Knightfall, has said a number of times that plans for the event were well under way before the "Death of Superman" story happened. It's fairly easy to confirm this, if you consider the introduction of Azrael to be the first part of a long story, and you believe that his introduction was always meant to be the start of Knightfall. But even if Knightfall had been created without influence from the Superman offices, it was part of the collective superhero hive mind that would see variations on a theme get more and more ridiculous.

Knightfall was the next step.

To O'Neil's credit, what makes Knightfall work is all the set up. Jean-Paul Valley is introduced a year earlier. He becomes Azrael. He quits being Azrael. He gets trained by Batman. He's in the background as the battle against Bane unfolds.

In fact, the main story heading into the show down with Bane has nothing to do with Azrael, it has to do with the fact that Batman is starting to lose it. He is working himself too hard. The physical damage he does to himself night after night is nothing compared to the mental damage. Robin is worried. Alfred is worried. The audience is worried. Batman is burned out, but he keeps working.

And that's an important point. It establishes that Bruce is perhaps not at his best when Bane gets a hold of him. It also supports his initial decision to give up, to hand the cape and cowl to Jean-Paul Valley. Batman never loses and he never gives up, but he does both in Knightfall, so the creative teams had to make sure he was in a place where that would happen.

Bane is almost secondary. Were he anyone else, Batman would have chosen to go on hiatus. Bane basically forces him to.

What's interesting is that what leads Batman to this point does not, at least initially, have anything to do with Bane. He first starts showing the wear and tear of the job while trying to stop Black Mask; Batman gets beaten down by Black Mask's bodyguard, a character we've never seen before. This would become a theme.

While still physically spent from stopping (yet not capturing) Black Mask, Batman faces off against a new character named Metalhead who is, frankly, a pretty awful creation. But Metalhead also gives Batman a good beating, although Batman eventually wins out. But these back to back beatings are enough to wear Batman down and the physical abuse begins to weaken him mentally and emotionally as well.

Given Batman's history of putting up with a lot of abuse, it's hard to believe that these battles in particular would be wearing him down, but we have to take them with a grain of salt, just like we have to look past the fact that for some reason he's decided to shut himself off from everyone around him. One of the key factors in Batman's downfall is that he doesn't let Robin (Tim Drake) help him. He continually relegates Robin to back-up.

The problem is that by the time we get to Knightfall, Tim Drake has become a fairly proficient vigilante in his own right, and Batman knows it. In the publishing world, Tim had been Robin for a few years at this point and had even had three separate series. His abilities at this point should have been unquestioned.

To make Batman's cold shoulder somehow more believable, Tim is regularly written out of character. It doesn't seem like writer Doug Moench ever has a grip on who Tim is and more often than not this Robin comes across as the last Robin, Jason Todd. Moench writes the bulk of the first few issues, but thankfully Chuck Dixon eventually takes over, and say what you want about Dixon, but he understood who Tim Drake was from the start.

It's not just Tim Drake that's an issue, though. By this point in his history, Batman has a family. Knightfall is a story that would have worked much better before there were so many branches of the Bat family tree. The idea that Bruce would hand over his mantle to Jean Paul, let alone that he'd be allowed to be Batman, is a stretch, and this is coming from a guy who LOVES No Man's Land.

Knightfall is overly long and logically inconsistent, but still kind of enjoyable. What's interesting is that, like the Death of Superman before it and the Clone Saga after it, the ultimate point of Knightfall is that 90s style superheroes don't work. It is refuting what is going on in mainstream superhero comics while also indulging in it. That's an impressive line to walk.

Still, the event has problem that it's predecessor (The Death of Superman) didn't. It was overly long, it involved many titles that didn't normally interact, and there weren't consistent creators.

The art, in particular, is uneven across the event. The main Batman books are more or less stable, but bringing in other books, some of which had very different aesthetics, was jarring (I'm look at you, Catwoman).

Just like the Death of Superman and the Clone Saga, Knightfall seems designed to show us why the original is better than the knockoff(s). In this case, I don't think Knightfall fully succeeds, in part because Azrael is set up to fail, but also because Batman operates in a grey area. The idea that a more violent version of Batman would somehow be the antithesis of the usual Batman is flimsy. The line for Batman is constantly moving.

There's also nothing about Bruce Wayne, in particular, that makes him the only person who can be Batman. Jean Paul Valley is a bad example because, again, he was created to go off the deep end. But the final arc of Knightfall involves Dick Grayson stepping in as Batman, a role he could pull off just as easily as Bruce (and does, when Bruce "dies" in Grant Morrison's brilliant run on the Batman books). In many ways, Dick is more qualified that Bruce because he's more emotionally stable. Even with all the sidekicks and partners, Bruce still has a martyr complex, while Dick is a team player.

This isn't how it plays out, of course, during Knightfall. Just as Tim Drake is pushed aside, Dick Grayson is made to be less than who he really is, all for the sake of showing us that Bruce Wayne is the one true Batman.

He doesn't have to be, of course, which makes Batman different from other iconic heroes. There is only one Superman, one Spider-man, one Wonder Woman. They may be replaced, but their origins are unique, their powers specific to those origins. Batman's origin isn't that unique; even if you decided that, to become Batman, a person HAD to see their parents die in front of them, I'm sure there are a handful of people who could qualify. Expand that search to the entire world and I'm sure that number would get pretty big, pretty fast.

Bruce's abilities were learned. He's not a superhuman. His money has obviously made becoming Batman easier, but Daredevil has done relatively the same thing without it.

All of that is to say that an event built to show why the main character is special doesn't hold up when it has to go to great lengths to make that case, and even then isn't definitive.

At this point, what makes Bruce Wayne unique as Batman is his history. The cape and cowl carries so much baggage at this point that there's really only one person who has the knowledge and experience to pull it off although, again, Dick Grayson could make a reasonable claim. At this point Tim Drake probably could, too.

Knightfall is entertaining, don't get me wrong. It's far too long and the quality is erratic, but there are some solid adventure stories sprinkled throughout. And while I've never cared for Bane, he's clearly become an iconic villain, so in that regard Knightfall was a success.

But as far as 90s events are concerned, Knightfall doesn't hold a candle to the Death of Superman.

 

That scene in Wonder Woman (spoilers)

My wife and I both have full time jobs and a three year old son, so the only movies we watch together are the ones you can rent and pause every twenty minutes. If either of us manages to make it to a theater to see a movie, we usually end up doing it without the other one.

This is why, while I saw Wonder Woman a few weeks ago, Nicole just say it recently. Her initial reactions, based on the texts she sent me when the movie let out, were a perfect reminder of how great she is and how great we are together.

Her first comment was that she really liked it.

Her second comment is that she could have done without all the speed bumps, which is a reference to something involving how parts of the movie were filmed and which totally confused me.

Funny enough, my first comment after the movie was that I really liked it and my second comment was about the music, which is a good contrast between the two of us. Nicole will always have a better eye for film and I will always have a better ear for music.

We shared the same third comment: We both wished that a particular scene had never happened.

The scene in question is after the first major battle for Wonder Woman after leaving the island, the battle at No Man's Land. Afterwards, everyone is celebrating the liberation of the town and she and Steve Trevor are having a moment while they dance. The scene then moves upstairs to a room in the hotel, where Diana and Steve share their first kiss. The camera then cuts to the exterior of the hotel and the scene ends.

The implication is that this was the sex scene and, if that's the case, it's incredibly out of place.

It should be noted that the scene itself seems to be intentionally ambiguous. One of the people I saw it with was convinced Diana and Steve did NOT have sex and I chose to go with her interpretation.

The scene isn't necessary. They didn't have to have sex to be in love, yet that's the implication given at the end of the movie. And while that's a lovely reversal of a traditional puritan narrative, it's also still messed up.

And it suggests that this is the only reason we know they're in love, despite all the other moments in the movie. It also suggests it's the only reason that THEY know they're in love, which opens up an entirely creepy door, behind which we find sleazy Steve Trevor. If sex was required for her to know she was in love, then she's more naive than the entirety of the movie would suggest, and perhaps Steve having sex with her isn't exactly as charming as we're supposed to think.

It would have been interesting if Steve only believed she loved him because they had sex, though, while Diana loved him and they had sex.

But given the length of the movie and the amount of time Steve and Diana spent together, isn't even claiming they were in love a bit of a stretch? And is that the type of story we'd see in movie with a male lead?

We're also shown throughout the movie that Diana's brashness is due to her devout belief in her cause. She might be plunging headlong into the unknown, but she's willing to do so because she believes only she can stop Hades. She's willing to put up with a lot of strangeness in this new world for the good of her quest. But I don't know how sleeping with Steve would fit in there and it seems like a complication she would want no part of. And that's not specifically an emotional complication, it's just the idea of introducing something new to her when she's been so focused on her goal.

From that respect, I don't know that she would initiate sex and if she didn't it brings us back around to Sleazy Steve cutting a hole in the bottom of his bucket of popcorn.

I'm sure there's a valid argument somewhere out there for why this scene is not just perfectly fine, but essential to the movie. But I haven't found it and I can't imagine what it would be.

Besides, Hollywood, if your goal is to let us know that Wonder Woman is a sexual being then you know exactly what you have to show us and it doesn't involve a man.

We'll see if Warner Brothers accepts that challenge in the sequel.

The Death (and Return) of Superman is the best

It's easy to look at the resurrected Superman's hair, those handful of panels with him in black and holding big guns, or even the version of Superboy that came out of this event and think "this is a crazy 90s stunt event comic." But it's not remotely like that, although to be honest it's partially responsible for the crazy 90s stunt event comics that came after it. In fact, while the coming years of superhero comics would become a insular, repetitive messes, Death of Superman was more externally 90s than internally 90s.

Those external forces are clear in the elements I mentioned above. Beyond that, the story itself was impacted by the Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman television show that was airing at the time. As the story goes, the creative team on the Superman books in 1991 had hoped to marry Lois and Clark in the pages of the comics the following year. But DC nixed the plan, as any marriage involving those two characters was to be saved for the television show.

With the wedding no longer an option, the creative teams decided to kill off Superman, instead. It should be noted that they also decided to bring him back.

The Death of Superman has a number of things working for it that would be questionable for other, similar events later in the 90s.

  1. It was well planned. The collected editions lay it out pretty clearly: there were four chapters to this story. Superman died in the first. The world mourned in the second. We met the new version of Superman in the third. And the real deal returned in the fourth and final chapter. There were no left turns made in an attempt to drag the event out. The sales department didn't deliver any orders for chromium covered one shots or relaunched titles. This was a story that was driven by the creative team.
  2. The creative team was made up of some of the most talented professionals in the industry, none of whom were really big names. That's not say that fans didn't know who former X-Factor writer and Cable co-creator (you heard me, Liefeld) Louise Simonson was, or who long time DC writers and artists Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, and Jerry Ordway were. But none of them were big the way that creators were becoming big in the 90s. This meant that they were professionals aka the comics actually came out on time. It also meant that the storytelling was clear.
  3. The Superman books had already been interlinked. One of the problems with later events is that they incorporated a line of comics that weren't usually dependent upon one another. The Bat books, the Spider books, even the X books all had their own stories going on at any time. But the Superman titles had begun the "triangle period" a year earlier: each issue of every Superman book featured a triangle with a number on it, which reflected the order in which the comic should be read among all the other titles. In other words, the triangle would show up on 48 (and eventually 52) comics a year, connecting all four Superman books. It was a lot like reading a weekly Superman comic, although each title had some room to do its own thing. In other words, if you were already buying all the Superman books, you didn't have to add more titles to your list (okay, fine, one Justice League comic).
  4. It matters to people when Superman dies.

So I left that last point unexplained because I think it's the crux of why the Death of Superman works far, far better than any other replacement hero story, be it the clone, Azrael, Kyle Rayner, or teen Tony Stark. The public doesn't know who any of them are. Maybe they know Tony Stark is running around as Iron Man again, but he's still a guy in a suit and that's the extent of what they care about.

Superman dying had impact on the world and part of the reason this story worked is because the creators were smart enough to embrace that. The second arc is entirely about how the world responds to no longer having a Superman. This could have been something they simply wove into the bigger story line of the imposter Supermen, but it was too important.

And this focus made the rest of the story that much better. After we see how much the world is hurting after Superman's death, it's understandable, then, when they convince themselves that any one of the four Supermen is the Superman reborn.

Let's talk about those four possible Supermen. I really love the idea that each is based on a title that has been given to Superman over the years, although I had honestly never heard anyone refer to him as the Metropolis Kid until this event.

The Last Son of Krypton - The Eradicator initially appeared in a Superman annual three years earlier, which was keeping in the general marching orders of the Superman offices at the time: incorporate things from Superman's glorious history in a new way. He ultimately become an anti-hero of sorts, even joining the Outsiders.

The Metropolis Kid - And speaking of things from Superman's past, the original Superboy had been written out of DC continuity by this point, mostly because it was an extremely problematic concept. Hey, look, Superboy fights crime in Smallville! Hey, look, years later there's a SuperMAN who fights crime in Metropolis! I wonder who he really is? Wait...is there anyone in Metropolis who used to live in the small town of Smallville? You can see the problem there. So if Superboy couldn't be a young Superman, then the creators had to come up with the next best thing. If you guessed the son of Superman, yes, that would make sense (and go read the current Superman comics). But since they couldn't even get Superman married, they certainly couldn't give him a kid. And so we got Connor Kent, a clone made up of Superman and Lex Luthor, the love child we always knew they'd have.

The Man of Tomorrow - The story of Cyborg Superman is amazing in how it merges various elements of Superman's life. Not only was he originally introduced two years before this story, he's only in his predicament -- and only hates Superman -- because of something Superman did with the Eradicator. How perfect is that? That's part of the brilliance of all of these Supermen - they didn't just pull elements from the past, they set up stories for the future.

The Man of Steel - Steel was easily my favorite of the four Supermen. While his initial stories were somewhat questionable from a representational standpoint (there are an awful lot of unfortunate cliches at work), Steel stood out not only because he truly wanted to do good, but because he made no bones about the fact that he was not Superman.

The introduction of these four Supermen was an incredibly smart move. The death of the real Superman had put interest in the comics at an all time high and no readers were getting the first appearances of brand new characters. This wasn't just great for the regular audience, but played on the speculator insanity of the time. It was also brand building at its best.

The final chapter of the Death of Superman story establishes that the comics and the character will be at odds with the comic book trends to come.

Cyborg Superman reveals himself to be the villain of the story. He teams up with Mongul (not willingly) and they destroy Coast City, a nod towards the "big screen" destruction that would become commonplace in superhero comics in the years to come.

Fighting Cyborg Superman and Mongul is just extreme enough for the Eradicator to join in, allowing him to maintain his anti-hero status which is a characteristic we'd see an awful lot of during the 90s.

Superboy adds in the edgy attempt at being cool that was so prominent as comics tried to keep teenagers from leaving them for video games and Steel represented the long over due, still underwhelming, attempt at diversifying the DCU. I actually wonder how much Steel's success may have influenced DC's decision work with Milestone.

There are a few moments towards the end when it looks like Superman might fall to the dark side: the all black costume, the terrifying panels in which he's holding a machine gun in each hand. But in the end he saves the day by being the same Superman we've always loved, albeit now with a mullet.

(The mullet is awful, yes, but also baffling, as they explanation is that it grew while he was gone...yet he doesn't show up with a beard.)

The Death (and Return) of Superman wasn't just a great event, but a statement on who Superman is and will always be. There is a purity that will never go away, not if they kill him off, split him into two characters, or reboot him over and over again. The true Superman always finds a way back.

 

Spider-man: Homecoming is a perfect reboot

If Spider-man: Homecoming has one major problem it's that the titular character can't possibly match the main villain, not in fisticuffs, but in pure gravitas on the screen. Michael Keaton is phenomenal as the Vulture, a bad guy who might be the best we've seen from any Marvel movie, not that the bar was particularly high.

I don't know if it was the writers writing for the actor or the actor taking liberties with the script, but there's a depth to the Vulture that we've never seen from other MCU villains. And his origin story is so beautifully anchored in the ground level reality of the MCU that he becomes possibly the first bad guy whose birth actually makes sense.

This version of Spider-man clearly uses Ultimate Spider-man as its blueprint. But, just as Ultimate Spider-man updated concepts from the original, Homecoming updates concepts from Ultimate Spider-man. The fact that it's an inspiration of an inspiration allows the movie to make more drastic changes to the original, all of which seem natural.

In fact, I had an overwhelming desire to read Spider-man comics after I got out of the movie, but found myself at a loss for what to read. I appreciate the older comics and I enjoyed the Ultimate version, but neither really satisfied this particular craving. There's just no Spider-man comic out there that feels as current as this movie does, at least none that feature Peter Parker (my issues with the Miles Morales comic are different and can be saved for later).

And it's not just that Spider-man: Homecoming feels current, it feels fresh. As much as I loved Ultimate Spider-man, it never felt that way to me, perhaps because it was a reflection of the times, while Homecoming feels like it's leading the way.

Look at the cast. Homecoming has a diverse cast. Granted, the hero is still a straight white guy, but surrounding him with non-straight white guys makes the movie seem real in a way that few other superhero movies (or movies in general) do. This feels like a real high school in NY.

And these feel like real kids at a STEM high school. That change, it should be noted, is perfect. Teenagers will always have cliques and a hierarchy, but here there's a thread that runs through all of them. Peter isn't an outcast because he's smart. He's an outcast because he's socially awkward and a flake, the latter of which can at least be attributed to his other life.

The new versions of classic Spider-man teenagers are vastly improved upon in almost every way. Ned is clearly ripped from the pages of Miles Morales and the idea that Peter Parker has a best friend in high school is wonderful. I'm sure in 1962 it would have seemed at odds with Peter being a lovable loser, but these days it's entirely possible to be an outcast with a friend. Lovable losers can find each other.

Liz actually has character, something that couldn't be said for her in the 60s. The Ultimate version of her also got the short shrift, playing a one note "I hate mutants oh my god I AM a mutant" bit for years. This version was interesting even before the big twist.

Flash is, well, Flash. But this version is just a rich, popular jag vs. the jock bully in his original incarnation and the abused tough guy in the Ultimate version. At the very least, there's potential in this new Flash.

Outside of Peter and Ned, though, the character who gets the best moments and clearly has the most potential is Michelle. I have no idea who Zendaya is or why there was a scandal of some kind when she was announced as being in this movie, but her portrayal of Michelle was just about perfect. She was able to walk a fine line of disinterested outsider and sly, witty peer. I say "peer" because that's exactly what she is: she's Peter's match. It's implied that she's just as smart as Peter. It' also implied that she feels just as alone, although she's able to mask it better than Peter does. She also seems to have a greater understanding, if not appreciation, of the larger world, something that often escapes Peter.

The high school stuff was great and the Vulture was great and Tom Holland was great. Were there any problems?

Well, for one, Aunt May needed more screen time. The relationship between Peter and his aunt is hinted at, but never shown, not to the extent I felt it needed to be. There's clearly a unique dynamic between them, something different from a traditional mother/son relationship. There are hints, don't get me wrong. Peter breaking down about the Stark internship is a solid scene, although I think May is smart enough to have realized that Peter didn't really give her an explanation for where he'd been. Peter running to May as soon as he gets a date to the Homecoming dance is fantastic. But I could have used more of that, something to make May a more central figure to the movie.

Along those lines, Tony Stark's involvement never worked for me. I don't know why, but he felt out of place. I think a big part of it is because he makes every thing in the movie overstated. Peter would have felt awful about the battle on the ferry on his own. It would have shaken him, made him question his purpose, particularly given that the FBI seemingly had it under control. It's easy to imagine that he would have quit being Spider-man after nearly getting dozens of people killed. And it's easy to imagine he would have picked it up again after discovering who the Vulture was.

None of which needed Tony Stark to happen. But Stark spelled everything out in capital letters for us, and I suppose some people needed that.

Sure, the bits with the suit were funny and certainly helped explain some things, but the degree to which Stark was involved wasn't necessary. He detracted from Spider-man to the point where I actually thought that the big thing the movie was missing was more Spider-man.

Along those lines, it would have been nice to see Spider-man fighting crime. Again, I understand that showing him bored out of his mind and webbing innocent people is funny, but he's in New York. He can't find any crime to stop? And when he does, it involves alien technology?

It's entirely possible to have Spider-man fighting real criminals and also wanting to do more Avengers type stuff. The extremes don't need to be there. He can consider stopping a bank robber small potatoes when compared to the things the Avengers do. He can be eagerly waiting for that call while actually doing some good.

And because he's never shown doing much of anything, we never see much of the Spider-man wit. Say what you want about the last two movie versions of Spider-man, but they were both witty. There was very little of that from this Spider-man. And while I understand that this is meant to show how overwhelmed he was, you can't have him bored to tears and overwhelmed at the same time. Plus, the constant jokes are supposed to be a representation of who Peter can be when he's wearing the mask. It distinguishes Spider-man from Peter Parker.

Honestly, had they cut 75% of the Stark scenes and split the remaining time between Aunt May and Spider-man actually doing something, this movie would have been close to perfect.

Even so, it was exactly what I wanted from a new version of Spider-man. It was the essence of the character distilled into a modern version, and it didn't even require an origin story. For as much as I enjoyed Homecoming, I'm looking forward to the inevitable sequels even more.

Side note: The inclusion of the Prowler has me hoping that Peter Parker gets a trilogy and that the post-credits scene of the third movie introduces us to a boy named Miles Morales...

Squadron Supreme > Watchmen

I recently got the Squadron Supreme Omnibus, which collection the original limited series (and tie-in) and the follow-up OGN. In honor of this wonderful addition to my bookshelves, I thought I'd re-post my column about the Squadron Supreme.
 

It was a groundbreaking superhero story.  It took archetypal characters to their organic extremes.  Every action had consequences.  Change was real and long lasting.  These were sophisticated stories featuring complex moral and philosophical issues, told through the genre of brightly colored super beings.

It wasn't Watchmen.

The comic in question was The Squadron Supreme, a 12 issue limited series written by Mark Gruenwald with pencils by Bob Hall, John Buscema, and Paul Ryan, and inks by an all star cast.  It debuted in September of 1985, a full year before Watchmen.  There are a lot people (including me), who consider it an unsung classic, deserving of the type of recognition that Watchmen gets.  So why is it overlooked?

A Brief History of the Squadron Supreme

The Squadron Supreme were created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, although it would be fair to say they were actually created by Thomas and John's brother, Sal.  See, the Squadron first appeared in Avengers #85 in 1971 as good versions of a team that Thomas and Sal had introduced just two years earlier in Avengers #69: the Squadron Sinister.  Each team had the same four members (although the Supreme version had an additional four), but they weren't the same.  One was bad, one was good.

If you're confused by that, you're not alone.  Even Marvel's own production office couldn't keep the two teams straight, advertising the "Squadron Sinister" on the covers of two issues of the Avengers that actually featured the Squadron Supreme.

Anyway, both teams were created as analogs for DC's Justice League of America.  The common members of the two Squadrons were Hyperion (Superman), Nighthawk (Batman), Whizzer (the Flash), and Doctor Spectrum (Green Lantern).  When the Squadron Supreme first appeared, their line-up also included Lady Lark (Black Canary), a different character named Hawkeye who would later go by Golden Archer (Green Arrow), Tom Thumb (the Atom) and Cap'N Hawk (Hawkman).  It's kind of interesting that those were the additions, as opposed to versions of the remaining Justice League founders (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter).

The Squadron Supreme would make a few more appearances in the Avengers, as well as showing up in an issue of Thor and Spider-man.  But their big story line would come with an extended arc in the Defenders.  The ranks of the team would fill out here as well, with the additions of Power Princess (Wonder Woman), Amphibian (Aquaman), Arcana (Zatanna), and Nuke (Firestorm).  Missing from the ranks is the Skrullian Skymaster (the Martian Manhunter) who would be briefly shown as a founding member in the first issue of the Squadron Supreme series, but would only be revealed in the Squadron's entry in the Marvel Handbook (at least until the follow-up to the follow-up of the Squadron's series).

Now, a word about Nighthawk.  Nighthawk is Kyle Richmond.  On our world (the 616 Earth of the Marvel U), he was a Defender.  But here's the thing: the Defender known as Nighthawk wasn't actually of our world!  He was, in fact, the Nighthawk from the Squadron Sinister who switched sides and ended up joining the Defenders!

I know, right?

But it's the Squadron SUPREME's Nighthawk that is important.  In the Squadron's next appearance, Kyle Richmond had become president of the United States of the Squadron's world.  He was soon taken over by the Overmind, who used Richmond to turn the U.S. into a paranoid police state.  The Overmind himself was under the influence of Null the Living Darkness, but that's neither here nor there.  The important bit is that the Overmind also took over the Squadron.  The Defenders managed to free the Squadron and together they defeated Null.

And that was it.

Because No One Demanded It

In the sixteen years since the Squadron Sinister first appeared, the Squadron Supreme had only made a handful of appearances in the Marvel U, none of which had any lasting impact.  It's hard to imagine there was much of a fan movement to get them their own series.

There also wasn't much from the Defenders story that would suggest a Squadron Supreme story needed to be told.  They'd been taken over by a supervillain, but what superhero hasn't?  But if there was a core idea behind the Squadron's series, it was to extrapolate the bigger picture from something small.  Gruenwald took the germ of the Defenders story and turned it into a virus.  The Squadron had been controlled by the Overmind for quite some time, and they'd been busy.  They'd helped to build the United States into a fascist country that then spread across the globe by invading and occupying the rest of the world.

But then the Overmind went away and oppressive order turned into complete chaos.  The world hadn't actually ended, but the Squadron Supreme's earth was about as post-apocalyptic as you could get.

With the world in shambles, the Squadron Supreme decided to get proactive.

But this isn't The Authority style proactive.  No, the Squadron decides to set themselves up as a super power.  Federal governments remain, but in reality everyone answers to the Squadron.  The Utopia Project initially focuses on feeding the world, building homes, bolstering the economy, and dismantling the military.  After all, what good are stealth bombers or even nuclear bombs when you've got Hyperion, the stand in for Superman running around?

In a world full of superheroes, there are always supervillains, they always seem to escape from whatever prison they're locked in.  So to break this endless cycle, the Squadron Supreme come up with the Behavior Modification Process.  Basically, it's a machine that changes a person's mind, removing their criminal impulses and replacing them with a desire to do good.  Before Zatanna, Dr. Strange, and Nick Fury began mind wiping, the Squadron Supreme was altering people's brains.

And then they got rid of death, or at least created world wide system to put people into deep freeze until they could be cured or brought back.

Not every member of the Squadron is on board with their program, though.  Nighthawk leaves the team from the start, determined to find a way to stop is former compatriots from ostensibly taking over the world, even if they have the best intentions.  He argues that they should be helping humanity, not commanding it.

The series ultimately follows two narratives: The Squadron's efforts to create a Utopia and Nighthawk's plans to oppose them.  The two story lines come to a head in the finale which was, at the time, one of the most brutal comics I'd ever read.

Name a political issue and there's a reasonable chance the Squadron Supreme limited series dealt with it.  And each issue featured actual change, be it a new development in the Squadron's plans, the death of a character, or the escalation of a moral dilemma.  This was a big time ideological battle taking place in the pages of a superhero comic.  It may have lacked the subtlety of a certain other 80s comic that rewrote the rules of superheroes, but it was just as deep.

I'm not doing the series justice, in large part because this lacks context.  Superhero stories like this just didn't exist back in 1985, even though they would become all the rage after Watchmen was released.  But the Squadron Supreme series came first, yet isn't showing up on a Time magazine list any time soon.

The Watchmen Factor

The thematic similarities between the two series are striking.

Both books feature superheroes taken to their extreme ends.  In the case of Watchmen, it's breaking them down to the fragile human beings that they really are.  As many of said, it's a deconstruction of not just the characters, but the genre.  If anything, Squadron Supreme is pumping the characters full of steroids, taking the idea of superheroes to the other end of the spectrum, where they place themselves above the rest of the world.  In Watchmen, they are down in the gutters with the rest of us, manipulating events in the background.  In Squadron Supreme, they are overt, taking over the country and forcing their will upon us.

These behaviors carry over to the way the story is told.  Both comics feature secret plots to prevent horrible events from happening, but in Watchmen those plans are kept secret from both the characters and the reader; we only as much as they do.  In Squadron Supreme, we see it all.  Nothing is hidden.  And why would it be?  It's the actions that are important, so we need to see them, as opposed to Watchmen where the driving force is the mystery.  If we had all the information in Watchmen, it would lose momentum.

Even these secret plans are set opposite each other.  Ozymandias' goal is to prevent the world from falling into chaos brought by a third World War, a nuclear World War.  Nighthawk's goal is to prevent the world from becoming imprisoned by the extreme order brought by the Squadron Supreme.  The beginnings are the same way.  When Watchmen opens, there's a certain status quo, one that involves all (but one) vigilante having retired and Richard Nixon serving yet another term as president.  The death of Comedian up ends all of that, introduces chaos into the equation, chaos that eventually pushes the world to the brink of WWIII.  In Squadron Supreme, the world has already fallen into chaos, but the Squadron Supreme decides to create order.

It's also interesting to note that both books deal with analogs of other characters.  Moore wanted to use the Charlton superheroes, but was famously told to create new characters instead.  Moore wanted to use recognizable characters so that the opening had some emotional resonance.  DC obviously didn't want to ruin their newly acquired IPs.  It was an odd decision, though, given that Watchmen doesn't take place in the mainstream DCU, or even on an alternate Earth, as by this point DC had done away with such things.  Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, et al. would have been perfectly fine in the DCU even if Moore had used them.

The fact that Watchmen took place in its own reality, set aside from the DCU, at a time when DC had gotten rid of alternate realities, increased the profile of the book.  This must be something special if DC were willing to create a superhero book that was completely removed from the rest of their line.

By that same token, Squadron Supreme was firmly entrenched in the mainstream Marvel U, even if the series took place on an alternate Earth.  It had roots in the Avengers.  It was seen as just another Marvel comic.

 Opposite Ends of the (Doctor) Specturm

Ultimately, the Squadron Supreme and Watchmen are as different at the two men who wrote them, Mark Gruenwald and Alan Moore.

By the time Squadron Supreme debuted, Mark Gruenwald had been working for Marvel for 7 years.  He was initially hired as an assistant editor and had moved up the ranks quickly.  He was perhaps best known as the editor of the Avengers line of comics, although he would later become synonymous with Captain America, a title he wrote for 10 years.  Gruenwald's run on Cap would feature incredible highs (everything leading up to #350, really) and incredible lows (the newly returned Captain America armor, for example), but the length and depth of his time on the book would ultimately make him one of Captain America's premiere creators.

Gruenwald wrote superhero stories.  He edited superhero stories.  He was known as the guy who knew every piece of obscure continuity in the Marvel universe.

Leading up to Watchmen, Alan Moore had made a name for himself in the U.S. with his impressive run on Swamp Thing.  He'd also penned the classic Superman stories "For the Man Who Has Everything" and "What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" but the bulk of his work had been on a sophisticated horror title that had parted ways with the Comics Code Authority and would eventually be labeled "Suggested For Mature Readers."

To say that Moore was coming at Watchmen from a different direction than Gruenwald was approaching Squadron Supreme is an understatement.

The two publishers were in very different places as well.  Marvel was being run by Jim Shooter, who had hammered the company into a well oiled machine of family friendly superhero fare.  Marvel wasn't in the habit of taking risks at this point in its history. The fact that the Squadron Supreme even happened was impressive, but the fact that it took place in an alternate reality made that possible.

DC, on the other hand, was being run by Jenette Kahn, who had already broken new ground with Frank Miller's Ronin and the Dark Knight Returns, not to mention the new direction Moore had taken Swamp Thing.  Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC seemed focused on publishing a variety of content that appealed to a wide range of ages.

So when DC, hot on the heels of The Dark Knight Returns, announces that the guy who rejuvenated Swamp Thing would be releasing a brand new limited series that was meant for mature readers, people take notice.  The same could not be said for the guy who writes Captain America releasing a new series starring minor characters from an old Avengers story line.

Squadron Supreme is pure superhero story and embraces those elements; everyone runs around in spandex and capes like it's perfectly natural.  There are big, bombastic battles.   No one will ever think this is anything other than a superhero comic, even if it's a truly phenomenal one.

Watchmen simply has some superhero dressing.  It's not the story of supremely powerful beings living among us.  It's the story of regular humans doing insane things for a variety of reasons.  It's just as much a murder mystery and political thriller as it is a superhero story.  It's science fiction.  Watchmen stands out from the metric ton of superhero comics being published by the Big Two every month.

Watchmen made its characters less super; Squadron Supreme made them more.  They appear to be diametrically opposed, yet did so much to change the way superhero stories are told.

The Post-Gruenwald Era

This September marks the 30th Anniversary of the original Squadron Supreme series.  I would imagine that Marvel will release some kind of collection to commemorate the anniversary, or at least I hope they do.  It's going to be hard to top the last edition, though, as it was printed with ink that actually had Mark Gruenwald's ashes mixed in (seriously).

After the Squadron Supreme limited series, Gruenwald and artists Paul Ryan and Al Williamson abused the Squadron some more with the "Death of  Universe" OGN.  This particular adventure took place in space, and somehow on their return trip, the Squadron ended up in the mainstream Marvel U.  They kicked around for a bit before the Avengers finally sent them home.  Sadly, they returned to a very 90s universe in "New World Order."  They would eventually appear again in the Exiles series.

There was also an attempt at creating another version of the team, spear headed by J. Michael Straczynski.  The goal, it seemed, was to make them more realistic.  It didn't turn out too well.

The team's highest profile member is Hyperion, would play a major role in Jonathan Hickman's Avengers run, although Hickman has stated that this is yet another version of Hyperion and not the "Gruenwald version," as he called it. That's unfortunate, as this Hyperion is the only survivor of a destroyed Earth, and there's a part of me that would like to see the Squadron's earth wrapped up for fear of anyone doing any more harm to the team.

But the original Hyperion did eventually pop up, part of the fall out from Secret Wars. A new team is formed consisting of characters who have lost their alternate realities. The concept in and of itself is fine, but the series was uninspired and ended after less than two years.

The Squadron Supreme had their moment to shine in a complex, epic limited series.  If you love superheroes, you owe it to yourself to track down this truly groundbreaking run.

 

Why are people obsessed with the Spider-man Clone Saga?

I ask that because I think I can answer it and I think I can answer it because I am one of those people. I didn't even really read the thing when it was coming out and yet every couple of months I come back to it.

I think part of it is that it so perfectly encapsulates 90s superhero comics, 90s Marvel in particular. It was a germ of an idea that was supposed to be a finite story until the non-creative, business types got involved. It was initially devised as a way to imitate the success of DC's "Death of Superman" story. It's everything we've come to expect from corporately owned comic books.

That, in and of itself, is fascinating, particularly when you consider the wonderful information you can find online, specifically on the fantastic Life of Reilly blog. You can really get an inside look at how it all worked and where it all went wrong.

I don't think that would have been enough to suck me on its own, though. No, my weakness is for stories that have a glimmer of goodness that was somehow suffocated by horrible execution. That's what gets me. That's when I start rewriting things in my head, as if I could go back in time and fix it all.

I think that's what a lot of people miss about the Clone Saga: there was a solid idea in there, even if it was poorly planned from the start.

Let's get this out of the way first: the Spider-man books were in something of a rut leading up to the reintroduction of the clone. At one point, one of the main story lines was that Mary Jane had started smoking, so not exactly edge of your seat type stuff (unless you actually believed that Peter's parents had returned). So Spider-man going to a dark place wasn't necessarily a bad move, particularly given the trend in superhero comics at the time. But that angle only works if something brings him back to where he was before.

Ben Reilly aka the clone aka possibly the real Peter Parker could have been the perfect thing. But even from the start, the creators botched it.

The initial plan, according the Life of Reilly blog, was to have Ben revealed as the true Peter Parker, ostensibly allowing the books to reset and make Spider-man relatively pure again. This was to happen after only 7 months, if you can even imagine that.

It was crazy to think that anyone would have been okay with Ben replacing Peter, let alone handling the logistics of giving Ben Peter's life. I mean, even the impact on the IP would have been an issue at some point. Spider-man is Peter Parker; that's the way it will always be.

Using Ben as a reflection of Peter to pull Peter back from the brink is a solid story idea. It actually could have been something great, particularly if Ben was, say, de-powered but remained a part of the cast, one of the few who knew that Peter was Spider-man.

At various points they toyed with the brother angle with Peter and Ben and it was very nearly great, but it was abandoned too quickly and handled poorly when it did come up.

But much the way that giving Buffy a sister in season 5 of her show, giving Peter a brother would have led to all sorts of potential stories, particularly given that his brother had once had the same powers and, well, basically looked exactly like him but with blonde hair.

Secret twin brother! It's so gloriously soapy.

And this is the frustrating thing about the Clone Saga: that it could have been so good.

I also really liked the Clone Saga because it would have been given us some actual change in a superhero comic. The issues after Peter leaves and Ben becomes Spider-man are some of my favorite because I was completely on board with the idea of a new Spider-man. I though the initial idea of replacing Peter was a bad one, but once it had been done, I was all in. Had the creative teams been all in as well, then perhaps something great could have come from the new status quo. As it stands, they were simply treading water while trying to figure out how to bring Peter back.

And, yes, I know, only a crazy person expects actual change in a corporately owned superhero comic, but it does happen. Not often, mind you, but enough so that I keep waiting for it to come again.

The true beauty of the Clone Saga is that it will only get better with time. That's not to say the stories themselves will actually seem any better, but the idea becomes more appealing. The willingness to try something bold and to stick with it well beyond reason becomes more commendable.

It will forever be the most bizarre corner of the triangle complete by the Death of Superman and Knightfall, an essential piece of crazy 90s superhero comics that we can't live without.

The Best Avengers Team

Funny enough, the first Avengers comic I read/bought wasn't an Avengers comic, but a West Coast Avengers comic.

It was, in fact, volume 2, #17, of West Coast Avengers, and it featured a group of characters that were more or less foreign to me.  I had some idea of who Iron Man was because I'd read enough of the "on sale this week" sections of Marvel comics.  I was also an avid Marvel Age reader, so I'm sure I read a lot about Tony Stark there.  Oh, and I also loved the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe.

I realize that Hawkeye is super popular now, but back then I had no freaking idea who he was.  He was a Green Arrow knock off and I didn't even read DC Comics.  Wonder Man?  Really?  Tigra?  Mockingbird?  Not really an A-list cast.But Steve Englehart's ambitious stories kept me interested and I'd enjoyed Moon Knight's solo tales enough that his edition to the team sealed the deal: I read the West Coast Avengers for probably a good five to six years.

I wasn't so dedicated to their east coast counterparts.  It took me a long time to appreciate Tom Palmer's heavy inks over John Buscema's pencils, and by the time I did, Buscema had left the book.  There was never really an east coast line-up that I felt strongly about.  The closest was probably when Busiek and Perez relaunched the title.

The Avengers titles have been written by Bendis and Hickman for the last decade plus, but those teams never really interested me, either.  There was one point, during Civil War, when the New Avengers line-up made sense.  They were all anti-registration, so they were in hiding.  A team like Cage, Ironfist, Wolverine, Spider-man (in black!), Spider-woman, and Dr. Strange made sense, and it was a nice mix of characters, to boot.  But beyond that, it was mind numbingly heavy handed.  I actually had high hopes for the post-Heroic Age teams, and I think the New Avengers lived up to that to a certain extent, but why characters had to be on both teams, and why Wolverine would be on the big, public face of the Avengers team was kind of insulting to those of us who cared about the stories.  And, honestly, if you have to use the same characters over and over again to tell your stories, I'm thinking you've reached a creative rut.  At least Hickman made Sunspot and Cannonball cool.

I'm getting off topic...

It was during the Bendis era that I discovered what is, in my mind, the perfect team of Avengers.  Part of the appeal of this team might be that they were untouched by outside forces.  Part of it might have been that they appeared in some of the best stories Marvel has published in the last twenty years.  And part of it was the fact that these characters were new versions of existing characters, so they were unencumbered by history; these characters could be whoever they needed to be.

You think I'm going to say the Ultimates, don't you?  No, not them.

This is the greatest Avengers line-up ever:

Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine, Spider-man, Storm, Giant Girl, and the Hulk.  That's the Marvel Adventures: Avengers team.

This Wolverine works on this team because this Wolverine hasn't killed hundreds if not thousands of people.  This is Wolverine without all that baggage.  This Spider-man has always been a member.  This Bruce Banner has some semblance of control over the Hulk.

Janet Van Dyne as Giant-Girl was a brilliant move, better than any modified version of any character to be found in certain other alternate reality Avengers teams.  Keep an original character, but update her so that she's considerably more modern and considerably more powerful.  There may only be two women on the team, but between Giant-Girl and Storm, they're the heavy hitters.

I'll be honest: I'm not sure that this team would have worked as well as it did if it hadn't been written (more or less) by Jeff Parker.  Parker knows these characters and he knows how to make fun comics.  Each relationship gets screen time over the course of this series and seeing what each of these characters has (or doesn't) have in common is fantastic.

I know this team will probably never see the light of day again.  But when I want to read some Avengers comics, I'll always turn to my Marvel Adventures digests.  Avengers comics just don't get better than that.

Batman vs Spider-man

  It's interesting to me that this is a debate.  No, I'm not saying that I think this debate isn't without merit, because it certainly is.  I just find it interesting that this is the debate, that when it's all said and done, it comes down to these two characters.  Superman may have been the first, but when the votes are tallied, it's Batman and Spider-man who show up in the run off election.

A while back, Chris Sims over at Comics Alliance wrote about how, even though Batman is his favorite comic book character, Spider-man is the best comic book character.  And while I appreciate the fact that he's able to make that distinction, I respectfully disagree (on that last part -- can't disagree on the first part, obviously, as it's a matter of personal taste).

Batman Through the Ages.jpg

I would also take issue with Joss Whedon's comment that Batman is a Marvel character in the DC universe.  Sorry, Whedon, I love your work, but that's a statement made by someone who hasn't read enough DC comics.

Here are a few of the reasons why I think Batman is the greatest superhero character ever:

He's a Reflection of Society

I talk about this a lot, I think, but one of the things I love about Batman -- and one of the things the character does better than any other comic book character -- is that he changes with the times.  He's a reflection of what our culture is like at any given point.  Each decade of Batman is different and the fact that one character can have so many different interpretations and still have a solid core is fantastic.  It makes his 76 year history wonderful to dig into.

You don't get that to the same extent with any other character, not even Spider-man.  While Spider-man stories dabbled in issues of the day, the character has been portrayed in roughly the same way his entire history.  Maybe he got a little groovy in the 70's, maybe the black costume reflects a darker time in the 80's, and maybe the Clone Saga reflected the trend in comics in the 90's.  But the depth of the social reflection has never been as great as with Batman.  There's a very good reason for that.

At his core, Spider-man is about angst.  He is the ultimate Marvel character.  And, to refute Whedon's claim, Batman is not.  The amount that Batman's angst matters has fluctuated over the past 7 decades.  At times it is essential to every story being told; at other times it's an afterthought.  The Batman of the 50's treated his parents' deaths as just another plot point that got him to where he was, and now it was time to put on silly costumes and exchange jokes with a teenage sidekick.  Spider-man has never fluctuated like that.

Which is fine.  It speaks to how powerful Spider-man's core concept is that he has ostensibly been the same character for over 50 years.  But it doesn't make him the reflection of society that Batman is.

Gotham

I love fictional cities.  I love the hell out of them.  Part of the reason why I love them is because, even though they're fictional, they make the suspension of disbelief much easier.  Putting all of your superheroes in New York City is kind of a hard pill to swallow when you've got thousands of characters.  The ratio of people to superheroes in NYC has got to be crazy by now.

Not that Gotham doesn't have it's problems.  At this point, you'd have to assume that the damn place would be cleaned up.  Why would any criminal work in Gotham?  And after all this time, why hasn't Batman's war produced any real change?

Still, placing Batman in a fictional city allows the city to become its own character without concern for stepping on the toes of reality.  Writers don't have to worry about parts of the city changing in the real world and upending their stories.  Crime Alley can always be ground zero for crime and poverty as long as the writers want that to be the case.

Gotham also allows creators to fill in a fictional history complete with its own bizarre stories.  There's no limit to the world of Batman.

His Villains Are Awesome

Let's just be clear on this: Batman has the best villains of any comic book character.  With each new Spider-man movie, fans argue over which villain is iconic enough to oppose him.  That's never an issue with Batman.  The latest trilogy of movies never gave us the Penguin or the Riddler, two well known Bat-villains, and that was after something like 8 hours worth of movies, all of which had multiple bad guys.

The Green Goblin just doesn't have the same status as the Joker.  There's no competition.  Even Batman's second tier guys are better.  They're scary and interesting and, after up to 76 years of storytelling, complex characters.

They're also diverse.  Batman's villains aren't always an extension of him; sometimes they're just really cool characters with specific motivations that don't relate to Batman.  Even those villains who are a reflection of Batman reflect different facets of his character.  If Batman is order and the Joker is chaos, then Two-Face is half of each.  The Penguin is old Gotham money gone bad vs. Bruce Wayne's old Gotham money gone good.  The Riddler is the opposite to the Dark Knight Detective.  Catwoman is the criminal who crosses the line into heroics, just as Batman is the hero who sometimes blurs the lines into villainy.

Even after that impressive list, how do you define Mister Freeze or Poison Ivy or Clayface or Killer Croc?  They're not extensions of Batman or Bruce Wayne.  They're simply really cool characters.

(And I haven't even mention Ra's al Ghul, Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Dr. Hurt, Mr Zsasz, Black Mask, Hugo Strange...)

The Bat Family

Even if you want to make the argument that post-50's Batman became a Marvel character in the DC universe because of the emphasis on his own psychological and emotional issues, you'd still be ignoring one of the most entertaining aspects of the character, one shared by other DC superheroes but hardly any Marvel characters: family.

Family has played a big enough role in the DC universe that they even published comics around them, like Superman Family and Batman Family.  Sure, these characters are now basically ways of expanding a brand, but they started off innocently enough.  Robin wasn't created to expand the Batman line and cash in on the Batman brand -- if he had been, they'd have called him Batboy (Kid Batman?).

While the New 52 has screwed the pooch on families, I'm going to pretend it never happened.

Batman has had 5 Robins now, 4 of whom have gone on to expand the family as Nightwing, Red Hood, Red Robin, and Batgirl.  There have been 3 Batgirls, two of which went on to become Black Bat and Oracle.  There have been two people calling themselves Batwoman.  Heck, there have been 3 people calling themselves Batman.

I love the fact that Bruce Wayne has created a family to replace the one that was taken from him at a young age.  I love how each character has a complex relationship with each of the others.  This large Bat-family creates a wonderful dynamic that's not present for any other character, even those that have their own families (sorry, Superman).  It also emphasizes how Bruce Wayne has changed over the years, from young, solo vigilante, to father figure to a group of superheroes.

I love the hell out of Spider-man (although my favorite period is the end of his college days to the first few years out of school, and those years seem to ignored by most fans and creators).  He was my favorite character when I was younger (Wolverine was #1 for a while, but Spidey eventually unseated him).  But if forced to choose, I'm going with Batman every time.