Dec 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

It seems I go to this comic every year for Christmas. But that's only because it's the best!

On window panes, the icy frost
Leaves featherred patterns, crissed & crossed,
But in our house the Christmas tree
Is decorated festively
With tiny dots of colored light
That cozy up this winter night.
Christmas songs, familiar, slow
Play softly on the radio
Pops and hisses from the fire
Whistle with the bells and chor.
My tiger is now fast asleep
On his back and dreaming deep.
When the fire makes him hot,
He turns to warm whatever's not.
Propped against him on the rug,
I give my friend a gentle hug.
Tomorrow's what I'm waiting for
But I can wait a little more.

Merry Christmas from the Cube (except Ben), everyone!

Dec 19, 2013

End of the Year Recommendations

End of the Year Recommendations
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

I can’t tell you what the best comics of 2013 were. I didn’t read enough new comics, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how new or not new some of the comics I read are. I don’t remember how much of the Batman Inc or Simone Batgirl I read this year were actually from this calendar year. I read a cool issue of Iron Man where he gets to fight three supervillains in a casino and even Bethany Cabe gets to knock one of them around, that I know for sure isn’t very new. I’m sure Kamiyadori isn’t new, because it’s English-language publisher doesn’t even exist anymore. I have no sense of time on that scale.

But, here are some comics that you should read, regardless of when they came out. Things I read or seriously reinvestigated this year, that are so good they belong not on your shelf but in your hands right this moment.

Endless Wartime (Warren Ellis and Mike McKone)

Long ago, Captain America made a mistake in trust, and longer ago, Thor made a mistake out of hubris. Today, those mistakes have come back to haunt them and to kill a whole mess of otherwise uninvolved people. Cue the Avengers to come stomp on the consequences of these mistakes until they stop hurting the world. That’s Endless Wartime.

Reviews of this Avengers comic tend to follow along lines of “I expected more,” or the very silly “how dare they say mean jokes to each other!” Ignoring that second category, I can see the first set’s point. But their expectation might be getting in the way of reality. Reality is, this is a super fine dynamite comic. It’s not the best Hulk comic or the best Captain America story ever in the history of all things ever, but it is the best Hulk comic I’ve seen in the last several years. It is the best Captain America or Captain Marvel comic I’ve seen recently.

It’s the first time, in a long time, that I’ve seen Captain Marvel around other heroes and not only acting in accordance with her very prestigious military and publishing background, but also being received by the others as someone who’s pretty impressive. She’s not a super-genius billionaire, but she is a colonel with a strong history in national security, an award-winning editor and writer of note, who’s been assigned command over Wolverine before by the US government. The fact that the majority of writers who use her, tackle her as an ass in black (with feelings of inadequacy) first and an Air Force Colonel who once ran security for NASA or oversaw the most successful women’s magazine launch in the Marvel Universe out of a one-room office and a boss who loathed her work is a problem. It’s not one that Warren Ellis makes.

For all that it would be easy to turn Hawkeye or Wolverine, Captains Marvel or America into cardboard gags if he so wanted, or generic action figures, everyone in Endless Wartime has both a complete and nuanced personality and their own brand of heroism or villainy. The villains of the piece, really, are depressing, especially in their joviality and practicality. The shame that hits Thor, and later Captain America, is remarkably deep, but each deals with it differently because they’re very different men, even when experiencing a similar emotion.

The only character in this comic who I think didn’t have their best showing of the year here, is Hawkeye, and that’s because Hawkeye’s solo comic should be sweeping awards ceremonies as you read this.

The Name of the Rose (Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuña)

It’s not uncommon to see someone refer to a comic as cinematic, or to talk of comics like TV or comics like music. This Black Widow comic is a bit of like everything. It’s pacing comes in fits, in fugues, with silent scenes, talky scenes, broad and thin imagery lingering over the page, big chunks of abrupt information hitting like bullets. Some panels are rounded at the edges and fade into the white of the background, others have no fade and no drawn border, simply stopping, while still others have varying depths of black or of fade, circles, squares, inset patterns, filmic rectangles, it runs the gamut. Texture and detail might give way halfway across the page to flat colors and distinct shapes. Characterization is often given in lacunae, machinations becoming evident behind the characters’ direct concerns or awareness.

If this had been television or a concept album, it’d have been praised up and down. Instead, because the comics field is as it is, the title was quickly handed off to other talent who used it to simply springboard into a miniseries that went essentially nowhere. Still, this comic is good. It’s a shame about the follow-up material, but this comic is more than sound. It’s beautiful. The fights are good and brutal, the romance is light and serious, the reveals and stings are treacherous and maddening. Liu writes a smart, solid Black Widow, with no attempts at making her seem less than competent or out of her element. Acuña had a great eye for layout and color, and does a magnificent belt buckle on Wolverine, which has to be magnificent or why would anyone spend time in a write up talking about Wolverine’s belt buckle.

This a guest star happy comic, too, with, yes, Wolverine, and with Bucky as Captain America, Tony Stark outside his armor, Pepper Potts, Lady Bullseye, Elektra, and some intriguing new characters who don’t feel new, but rounded and grounded. No one’s superfluous. No moment or appearance ever feels wasted, and when it all starts coming together, it’s like trying to throw your fist in the air to cheer while getting kidney punched. The last dozen pages are earned and gorgeous, with some brilliant violence and one of the finest sunsets I’ve ever seen in a comic, anywhere.

Yossel (Joe Kubert)

“How did they get the lines so black? How did they do the colors, so you could still see the black lines? Why were all the colors made up of little dots, while the black lines were sleek and solid, no matter how fine the lines?” – Yossel, page 10

“Outside the barrack, the glare from spotlights mounted at intervals on the electrified fences seemed to dance in the rain.” – Yossel, page 68

“Jewish resistance and retaliation has become a reality.” – Yossel, page 91

“I was lucky.” – from Kubert’s introduction

Yossel came out ten years ago. Most of you didn’t read it then. Read it now.

Joe Kubert was the kind of talent you can’t measure, because there’s no good way to measure it. He was influential beyond his artwork and his art is pretty damned influential. Yossel is the work of someone who knows exactly what they are doing, who is comfortable with their genius. A comic that is, on the surface, a sequence of gracious what-ifs, bouncing off the question of what life would have been like for him, had his family stayed in Europe while the Nazis were in power, this is bigger, smaller, and far more important than merely what-if-ing. There is penance and gratitude in the pencil lines of each page, every crackling panel-less image, each careful sentence.

The image across the top of one page is of the interned lined up and surrounded by soldier, waiting to be beaten and humiliated and perhaps killed. Not only do the interned have no faces, no specific features, as the lines of human beings recedes to the back, even the shapes of humanity go away, and those in the far rear are merely a blank oval hanging over the collar of a uniform. The Nazis cast huge shadows, bigger than themselves, but the interned cast an even larger shadow, in bulk, over them.

Dec 17, 2013

Challenging Preconceptions

We've all got our own images and preconceptions about particular characters, but sometimes there are things we overlook that could upend those preconceptions. They don't undo those preconceptions, but they may throw a monkeywrench in there once in a while.

Facts That May Cause You to Look at Characters Differently
by Duy


The Preconception: Superman doesn't kill.
The Monkeywrench: Superman has no problem with the death penalty.

Okay, we're just gonna go with "evergreen" depictions of Superman, because there's no way I'm sifting through 76 years of history, but here's something to note. In at least three seminal versions of Superman, Superman is not against the death penalty. In fact, the first scene in the first Superman story ever, Superman breaks into the house of the governor to offer proof that someone who's about to go to the electric chair is innocent, and specifying that he's left the real murderer, who will assuredly get the same sentence, on his lawn.

Okay, so the first ever scene Superman was in has him leaving a murderer to her fate. Does Superman accept the death penalty in other Superman stories?

Yes, he does. In the 1990s animated series, there's an episode called "The Late Mr. Kent," where Clark has to acquit someone who's about to be executed and send the real criminal to his death. Clark takes pride in being the one to report the story.

And in the much-beloved All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, Lex Luthor is set for the chair, and it's his punishment according to the UN, and Superman's perfectly fine with it.

It kind of throws a new light into Superman's whole "All life is sacred" stance, but it doesn't really undo it. Superman's for justice and the law, first and foremost, and he's not out to change those laws.

The Preconception: The X-Men are a haven for diversity in superhero comic books.
The Monkeywrench: Kitty Pryde, AKA Shadowcat, AKA Sprite, AKA the X-Man with the creepiest fans, was the fourth female member of the X-Men.

That's it. In 17 years from its inception, the X-Men had a total of three female members. It was tied with the FANTASTIC FOUR for the number of female members until Kitty Pryde showed up in 1980.

The X-Men just went on a roll from there on out with female members and members of other nationalities and whatnot, with Kitty being followed by Rogue, Rachel Grey, Psylocke, Dazzler, and Jubilee, but it is kind of strange to think that it took them 17 years to hit four female members.

The Preconception: Thor is a big giant bruiser who, while not stupid, likes to hit things.
The Monkeywrench: Thor knows medicine.

For the first 17 or so years of Thor's existence, he had a mortal form that he transformed to once in a while: Dr. Donald Blake. They spoke differently and acted differently enough that they were almost like two separate people. But Blake was a creation of Odin, a shell that Thor could retreat to when he was on Earth, and even Blake's thought balloons kind of show that he is Thor.

And as a consequence of that, even when he no longer has to go back to the Blake persona, Thor knows medicine.

I've seen people say that Thor's knowledge of medicine shifts and changes and is not as comprehensive as his knowledge of it when he is Blake, which I guess is a convenient enough plot device whenever the story calls for it.

The Preconception: Spider-Man is relatable.
The Monkeywrench: Spider-Man dates many a woman with model-level looks and complains about it.

I don't think I've ever personally said I relate to Spider-Man, despite the fact that relatability is kind of his thing. He's a little too neurotic for me to relate to and he doesn't prioritize the same things I would, if I were in his position. With great power comes great responsibility and all, but I personally don't think that should supercede your responsibilities to your family and friends. As Death would tell Dream, there is such a thing as personal responsibility as well. Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, but it's not really because I relate to him. It's because he has awesome superpowers and he's funny.

 Also, I'm really not sure how relatable he is especially when it comes to women. I mean, here are the girls he'd dated up to around 1980.

The third most significant girlfriend he's ever had behind Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson? The Black Cat.

Oh, and he complains about it. Part of his gestalt is not catching a break when it comes to women, so he doesn't know how to balance things out in his superhero life and his personal life, while he seemingly overlooks the fact that it's only ever because he became Spider-Man that he has the confidence to ever go on dates with girls like these.

Would a comic book reader complain if he had to decide between Mary Jane Watson and Felicia Hardy? I think not.

Then again, what do I know? There was a span of issues a couple of years ago where Peter slept with his roommate Michele Gonzales, drunkenly, and then with the Black Cat, his ex, all right after he sees Mary Jane, his longest-term ex, for the first time in a while, and fans online called him a man-whore, because a drunken hookup and sex with your ex never happens, apparently. (That was sarcasm.)

Peter isn't perfect. He's flawed. If anything, that's what makes him relatable, even if the particular details don't. He makes mistakes. He can be selfish at times. He'll break his own promises, leading to things like the creation of the Hobgoblin. Sometimes he'll even quit being Spider-Man — and then he'll bounce back. The story of Peter Parker is not that Peter is perfect; it's that he strives to be as good a person as he can be within those imperfections. That's what makes him relatable, if he is at all. If we delve into the details, like how he deals with the girls he dates, that falls apart.

The Preconception: Superman doesn't kill.
The Monkeywrench: He's done it, or has tried to, several times.

There's a big whole "Superman doesn't kill!" sentiment because of Man of Steel, but aside from not being opposed to the death penalty, Superman has also, in multiple "evergreen" stories, resorted to taking on the role of executioner.

In Alan Moore and Curt Swan's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, he has to kill Mxyzptlk because there's no other way to stop him.

He then punishes himself for it and then strips himself of his powers. (I guess it's lucky that all his major enemies are already dead at this point, because I'd hate to have been him right after he got rid of his powers and then have Bizarro attack.)

In John Byrne's run on the character, Superman takes matters into his own hands when he executes Zod and two other Kryptonians. They were more powerful than he is, and he wouldn't chance them regaining their powers and finding more innocents. No one would be able to hold them. Batman would later on call it an impossible choice that took billions of lives into account.

Superman gets some form of PTSD after this and develops a multiple personality and he thinks he's Gangbuster for a while, then he exiles himself off Earth. No one would blame him for what happened, except himself. Death is regrettable, even if there was no way around it.

Some years later, Superman has to kill Doomsday, or Doomsday was going to kill everyone.

Superman dies as a result. But then when he gets back and he sees the Cyborg Superman killing Coast City and besmirching his name, Superman decides to take matters into his own hands.

This ends up not killing Henshaw, but Superman doesn't know that — Green Lantern scans the area afterward and finds no trace of his consciousness. Superman says "Then it's over" and moves about his own business.

And of course, in the DC Animated Universe, that holy grail of DC lore, Superman tried to kill Darkseid twice. Because what else was he going to do? Darkseid was going to kill a bunch of people and would get back to that the moment he escaped whatever prison Superman was going to put him in.

The problem with the Man of Steel ending is not that Superman kills Zod, because that conclusion was foregone the moment they got rid of the deus ex machina before Superman and Zod even fight. The problem is fourfold, from what I can see:

  1. Superman's impetus to kill Zod is that Zod is about to kill a random family. What makes this family so much more important than the other ones Zod and the Kryptonians were already on their way to killing before this moment? Why does Superman privilege this family?
  2. Superman breaks Zod's neck. In a way, a large portion of the controversy is the method of the execution. "Vibrating my arm at an incredible rate," using the Phantom Zone projector, using green Kryptonite — none of these methods would work in real life and are therefore still detached, still part of the fantasy, much like Perseus using a shield to reflect Medusa's face onto her or Achilles losing because oh my Zeus, my heel. Superman breaking Zod's neck breaches that zone and brings the entire story too close to reality. I know "reality" (the quotation marks are necessary here) is the thing of DC movies, but Superman was treading the line with it already and the neck snap just crossed it.
  3. There was no proper time to mourn. Superman kills Zod, screams, and then the next scene is comedic. There's a lot to be said for comedy following a tragic sequence — I think Thor: The Dark World does it perfectly, for example — but the time was too short with Superman. It really was too soon.
  4. It's just not part of Superman's gestalt. That's the thing. Despite the times he's killed or attempted to kill in the comics, those are the exceptions. They're done to show that yes, sometimes Superman will cross the line. They work specifically because he doesn't do it. By making it a focal point of the first movie in a new franchise, regardless of what the intentions were (and the intentions are even more flawed than the movie; "He won't kill again because he's killed before! Tune in next time for when he decides he's not going to rule the world because he took over Spain once and decided he didn't like it!"), it establishes the wrong thing. You can't overturn convention without establishing it first. Superman isn't Thor, who kills when he has to and whose entire culture revolves around fighting and killing (and drinking), or Captain America, who's a soldier who therefore will kill if matters call for it. His gestalt is that he's Superman, and he always looks for a better way, only crossing a line if he cannot find that way in time.
It also probably doesn't help that Zod generally looks human (demonizing the opposition always helps audiences accept this kind of decision — Doomsday, Cyborg, the final form of Mxyzptlk don't look human, so it's easier to accept). But the problem is not that he has to kill Zod, per se, because that was a wall they set up for themselves ran into while writing. It was all in the execution. Which is why the worst part of the movie is still when he let his dad die.

On the other hand, it's hilarious.


I love this graphic. It's from here.

The Preconception: Heroes, in general, don't kill.
The Monkeywrench: That came from comics.

Heroic fiction historically's a high-stakes game that involves a lot of war and whatnot, so a lot of the time, it was kill or be killed. Achilles killed Hector, who would have killed him if he'd won; Aragorn killed a whole lot of Orcs; Robin Hood was in the Crusades; King Arthur killed Modred; Sherlock Holmes carried a service revolver around; and even Peter Pan — a kid — let Captain Hook go to the crocodile, where, even in the kiddified Disney version where you don't see Hook getting eaten by the crocodile, it's not like Peter Pan went out of his way to save him or anything.

And comics? They weren't different when they started. Here's Batman punching someone into a vat of acid and being callous about it.

Batman's such a dick.

A lot of the "Heroes don't kill" stuff is a byproduct of storytelling constraints. You can't kill the Joker even though that's probably best for the citizens of Gotham City because they'd be able to sleep at night, because the Joker's too big and marketable. They figured this out in his second appearance, where they actually killed him off and editor Whitney Ellsworth made sure he didn't die. And of course, later on, the censors came in and we weren't allowed to see death of any kind in a comic book.

So this whole thing where superheroes in general don't kill (and this is to varying degrees) is a byproduct of commercial and storytelling and censorship, but knowing this doesn't mean that superheroes should go around killing people. In fact, not going for a kill is, apparently and perhaps counterintuitively, more realistic, as David Grossman, in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, states that humans in general are averse to killing, and that soldiers would, without prior desensitization, rather intentionally miss than go for a kill. (It's a fascinating book; go read it.) So the next time someone says heroes should kill more because it's more "realistic," you can tell them they're actually wrong.

In the 1990s, the dichotomy of heroes who killed and heroes who didn't was so pronounced as to make the discussion between the two of them insignificant. One plot point in Captain America that was swept under the rug almost right away that they developed in the 90s is that he never killed anyone in World War II, just that bullets may have ricocheted from his shield and that killed people. That doesn't work for me — war is war, and war is ugly, and it's kind of insulting to the real people who had to kill to survive in the war, but it's also kind of self-righteous considering that Cap constantly fought beside a kid who had a gun. So you know, it's okay if Bucky and the other regular soldiers kill, as long as Cap doesn't.

It's also okay if you're the driver during the killing, apparently.
As long as a teenager is holding the gun, not you.

What makes this issue interesting to me is when they don't answer the question of whether the hero would kill or not. A third way should always present itself. In Revenge of the Living Monolith, Spider-Man has to make a choice between saving the Fantastic Four or the island of Manhattan. He's lucky he doesn't actually have to make that choice, because a third way presents itself. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Avatar Aang is caught between having to kill the Fire Lord (which he can't do by network standards; it's a kids' show) or letting him live at the cost of menacing innocents. A third way presents itself. (Sorry if I spoiled a five-year-old TV show.) In the first season of The Legend of Korra, an ethical dilemma is presented and Korra actually makes it so that the villains look like they're in the right, when as it turns out, one of the villains based his entire platform on lying to the public and that ends the debate. Except the actual problems behind the issue doesn't go away; a third way just presented itself to solve the issue for now.

The reason I like the "third way" is because I think for the most part, heroic fiction should be seen as something to look up to. And I think it is best if the writer leaves the truly difficult decisions, the "What would you do?" decisions, up to the readers. Stories such as these can serve as a guide, and God knows they shaped a lot of my personal thinking and approach to things, but the decision should be, and should always be, that of the readers'.

But in general, heroes not killing seems to actually be more realistic. Perhaps the reason that there was no such rule before is that culture was just different — war for the longest time was seen as a rite of passage. Perhaps killing the bad guy was seen as cathartic. As the world grew smaller and the horrors of violence were more exposed, the less so it became. Perhaps "no killing" didn't start from superheroes; maybe it was just something that happened at the same time.

The Preconception: Batman is realistic.
The Monkeywrench: He's really not.

Batman is a multibillionaire who fights insane clowns and dresses up as a gigantic bat. He was born with the genes to become the perfect physical specimen and trained really hard to become it. And people say "I could be Batman if I really wanted to be." I'm pretty sure that if you really wanted to be, you wouldn't be on the internet saying that. He sleeps with an international terrorist and a cat burglar and lets them go free despite his quest for justice. He dresses little boys up in red and green.

An alien landing on Earth and being raised to be a good person, I can buy. A frail kid who wants to help the war effort and is subjected to a new experimental method, I can buy. These are premises and origins. You have to buy them for it to work, and then everything after that has to be plausible given those conventions. Batman's origin — the murder of his parents and him vowing vengeance — is the most likely to happen in real life, but everything about Batman past his origin? Sure, it's a compelling hook. But "realistic"? No. Absolutely not.

The Preconception: Superman's secret identity is so obvious and people are stupid for not figuring it out.
The Monkeywrench: A lot of people in the world look alike.

Actually, since 1986, I've always been under the impression that since Superman doesn't wear a mask, people wouldn't think he had a secret identity at all. That was kind of implied in the first John Byrne issue.

So Clark and Kal look alike. Big deal. If you've ever been friends with identical twins, you know you'd be able to tell them apart and it'd be very rare for you to mistake one for the other. It's not like Clark and Superman have such unique faces that can't be disguised, which is why Nicolas Cage was a bad choice to play Superman, because a Superman's face has to be, for lack of a better term, generic for the disguise to work.

The Preconception: The Silver Surfer is the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe, barring the next level of cosmic beings.
The Monkeywrench: He was not created as such.

When I was a kid, everyone considered the Silver Surfer the single most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe,  partly because he had the highest stats on the Marvel trading cards for "strength" and "speed" and "energy projection."

Oh, 90s Ron Lim art. Your Silver Surfer shininess always makes me feel warm inside.

I don't know if this is still the preconception today, given Surfer's limited screentime now, but because of this, I wondered why he always lost to Thor. Recently (and by that I mean, at some point in the last ten years), I read their first-ever encounter in Silver Surfer #4 by Stan Lee and John Buscema, which has one of my all-time favorite covers.

Anyway, the gist of the story is that Loki tricks the Surfer into fighting Thor on Asgard. He fills his mind with dark suspicions and then augments his power.

Balder is totally that annoying martyr friend.
"Someone's in my seat! No, no, it's okay. I'll stand. Really, it's okay."

Surfer is barely able to keep Thor at bay, even with Loki augmenting his power. It's made pretty clear that the gods are on a whole other level from the rest of the superheroes (except the Hulk, when he's really really angry), and this is Surfer's own comic.

At one point, Loki manages to augment Surfer's power enough so Surfer can actually withhold Mjolnir from Thor via a cosmic barrier. And then Thor smashes it, because as it turns out, Thor had been holding back.

Here's another monkeywrench into all that. If all the gods are on another level from the regular Marvel superheroes, then shouldn't Hercules be seen as a heavy hitter too? Shouldn't he be there at the front lines of any big event? I'd love to see a big event cliffhanger where Hercules saves the day now.
The Preconception: Captain Marvel can easily beat Superman. He's made of magic!
The Monkeywrench: Captain Marvel has lost to a really big electric eel.

Golden Age Captain Marvel (AKA The Only One That Matters) could be changed by any form of electricity strong enough to approximate the voltage of Shazam's magic lightning, and at one point, Sivana used a really big electric eel.

So if Cap ever fought Superman in a fair fight, as long as Superman knows this whole "magic lightning" thing, how long does it take for Superman to dive into the ocean and find a really big eel? Five seconds? (Then again, it'd probably take Cap that long to find some Kryptonite, but that has nothing to do with being "magic.")

The Preconception: Uncle Scrooge only cares about money!
The Monkeywrench: Every cent Uncle Scrooge doesn't spend represents something money can't buy.

As told in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa, Scrooge left his native Scotland at a young age to make a fortune. But it wasn't because he was greedy — it was because he had to keep his family above water. He eventually makes his fortune and makes sure his family never has to work again. From there, he gets greedy, shuts himself off to everyone, and only cares about money... until we actually see him in the present day, when he reconnects with his nephew Donald and great nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. He rediscovers the joy of adventure and the importance of family. But he never lets this on. He only ever lets Donald think what he wants to think. Scrooge won't admit it. Except to his sister, Matilda.

But all the same, from the moment on, and from every moment before he got overtaken by greed, his big motivators were family and adventure. Money was never more than a McGuffin. (Well, except for his refusal to spend any. No one's perfect.) Scrooge McDuck built an empire, but he did it during the worst period of his life.

The Preconception: Spider-Man's costume is red and blue because he wanted to be a showman.
The Monkeywrench: Spiders come in different colors.

This is one of the rarer ones. Sometimes people talk about costumes, and what costumes mean, and usually I see (and have myself made the point) that Spider-Man wears red and blue because he originally wanted to be an entertainer. A lot of the time, this is used to point out that his black costume is more "spidery" than his classic suit.

But spiders come in all sorts of colors. We have a pet tarantula that's black and orange, and is really pretty. And the male red-headed mouse spider actually is colored red, black, and blue.

Now I don't really think Stan Lee and Steve Ditko thought the colors all the way through in the beginning, since it was just about what was cool and what coloring technology could replicate. But still, for those people who say that red and blue aren't spidery colors, well... there. They are.

Some stories mentioned in this column are:

Dec 16, 2013

Cover by Cover: Secret Wars vs. Crisis on Infinite Earths

Secret Wars vs. Crisis on Infinite Earths
Ben Smith

I couldn’t very well let Duy do a cover by cover comparison of these two monumental maxi-series alone, because I knew he would get it wrong. These series were both too important, too influential to young Back Issue Ben, to let that kind of brazen ineptitude stand unabated.

For those of you that know me, and care to know things about me, you’ve discovered my vast fondness for both of these series. Secret Wars was my introduction to the larger Marvel universe, beyond the singular tales of Spider-Man, or Wolverine. Crisis was the first DC comic I read that was not titled Flash. And since the quality of the interior storytelling is not up for debate (Secret Wars is way better) the covers are where the true battle lies. A battle for the very souls of each individual comic fan that has found themselves drawn into the intricate web of monthly serialized superhero comic book storytelling. Every fan that has fallen down the well of entertainment enlightenment, and found themselves drowning in the sugar sweet, yet pitch black, water of a larger fictional universe. Every fan that has raised their fist to the sky and screamed, “Thor could beat Superman!” I say unto thee, here is where you will find the answers you seek, the answers that until now have eluded you. Answers presented to you by Duy’s random criteria of; 1) Superior cover on an artistic level, and 2) Which cover was more likely to demand your hard-earned currency as a youth.

I stand before you as a man, a simple man, with simple tastes. I call upon what limited brain power I possess, and place before you this simple offering. The definitive Comics Cube cover by cover analysis of Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars versus Crisis on Infinite Earths.

(Yeah, "Cover by Cover" is just a different way of saying "Cover Comparisons." One is Ben's and the other is mine. -Duy)


Artistic Comparison: (I will readily acknowledge that George Perez is arguably the superior penciler over Mike Zeck, but Zeck is on the short list for my favorite comic book artist of all time. So, with my objective and subjective hearts clearly placed upon the table of surgical debate, let us begin the artistic discussion. As always, I have zero formal training and will probably get every technical term I try to use horribly wrong.)
Secret Wars #1 is one of the greatest comic book covers at all time. The heroes are very literally (I tried to think of a different word than literally, but couldn’t) bursting forth off of the cover toward the reader. Zeck beats Perez at his own (eventual) game here, by creating an engaging and dynamic crowd shot that doesn’t seem cluttered or illogical in terms of individual character action.

Crisis #1 is a well-crafted image. It may be the superior image on a technical artistic level, in terms of draftsmanship. Especially if taken as a whole image, front and back cover. The problem is that it’s not dynamic enough (as crazy as that might be to say about a cover that has world’s exploding in the background). It’s too busy. Verdict: Secret Wars

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: (For the purposes of these questions, I am going to try to objectively determine which cover I would choose based on the knowledge I actually had as a kid at the time that I actually did buy these comics, as a kid. Clear as mud? I will also try to suppress my long-standing subjective preference for Marvel.) Secret Wars offers the clear, distinctive, dynamic image. Crisis is almost too ambitious in that I would really have to stop and look hard at the cover to understand what is happening in the image. The characters featured on the visible front image of the Crisis cover include old Superman, Cyborg, Firestorm, and Blue Beetle. Not exactly as exciting as Captain America, Spider-Man, Hulk, and Wolverine. The only character that would be recognizable to young Back Issue Ben on the Crisis cover is Superman, and anyone that knows me knows how small of an incentive that would be. Verdict: Secret Wars


Artistic Comparison: Crisis #2 is a well-executed image, but the problem is again at the conceptual level. The layout is boring and not cover worthy, and I honestly wonder how it was approved as the final image. A shadow grabbing Anthro is the eye-drawing central focus, and I do not think that is a positive.

Secret Wars #2 is not that great of a cover either, but it’s the more eye-catching of the two by default. (I own a t-shirt with this cover on it, and my son will at least point to the various heads of the characters and name them. By that criteria alone, it is superior.) Verdict: Secret Wars

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: Secret Wars at least had the floating heads of characters I know, and a larger central image. The Crisis cover I would never buy if it wasn’t the second issue of a twelve issue series. Verdict: Secret Wars


Artistic Comparison: Secret Wars #3 features a fight between Spider-Man and the entire X-Men team. It’s a clearly presented image, with a layout that portrays the action effectively. Plus, Spider-Man is kicking Colossus in the head.

Not to sound like a broken record, but the problem for Crisis #3 is conceptual once again. Perez has the better more intricate backgrounds. His figurework is probably superior. But none of that matters if the image being drawn is a cluttered mess! There are too many images that unless I made a conscious effort to stop and pick up the cover and analyze it, the only thing I would notice on a quick glance across a shelf would be the giant red face (not a racial comment!). The detail is detrimental in this case. Verdict: Secret Wars

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: The only character I know on the Crisis cover is, again, Flash, and most of the rest are so very obscure. Plus the Flash looks like he either just finished relieving himself, or is trying very hard not to relieve himself, if you know what I mean. I can’t decide which, so that’s another point against the cover. The Secret Wars cover has what was, as a kid, my favorite character fighting my favorite team. Even taking character recognition out of the equation, I know I’d be much more likely to buy the single scene fight cover. Verdict: Secret Wars


Artistic Comparison: This is the first Layton cover, and it’s one of the greatest superhero covers of all time (I didn’t even realize until maybe a few years ago that Zeck did not pencil this cover). Layton is not the greatest penciler in terms of individual characters, but they’re so minimized here that it’s a non-issue. If you haven’t learned so far, concept and layout are key for me, and it doesn’t get any better than this cover.

The Crisis cover is the most appealing image to date, with the large white circle immediately drawing the eye. It’s also the simplest design so far, but still not anywhere dynamic enough to get my vote.Verdict: Secret Wars

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: One of the greatest covers of all time, featuring the Hulk holding up a mountain, versus three characters I couldn’t possibly have known unless I read the previous issues of Crisis. No contest. Verdict: Secret Wars


Artistic Comparison: This is another Layton cover, and Layton’s character work was not on the level of a Zeck or Perez. That being said, it is another image where the action is coming right at the reader, with hints of the unseen villains from beyond the cover’s border.

Finally the cover design and the artistic skill of Perez are both on a comparable level. The pleasing blue color makes it seem like a simple image, and yet simultaneously complex at a closer look thanks to the detailed artistry of a master reaching the peak of his craft. Verdict: Crisis

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: This is going to be the toughest call. Suppressing my huge Marvel preference, and trying to imagine that I do not know who the X-Men are when looking at this cover. I still have to imagine the Crisis cover wouldn’t be exciting enough for me as a kid. I believe I’d go with the action cover over the floating heads cover, as a kid, especially since it has Spider-Man on it. Despite how excellent I think the floating heads cover is now. Verdict: Secret Wars



Artistic Comparison: Crisis has a big monster face and it’s never been an appealing design to me on any kind of level. It doesn’t scare me, and/or I don’t think it has a “coolness” factor either. It’s a lackluster face, to me, and always has been. I much prefer the Anti-Monitor design from the latter half of the series. But, as always, it’s well-executed by Perez.

Secret Wars has another group shot, and it’s a well done group shot. The characters are balanced nicely, the figurework is not as “realistic” as Perez, but I don’t think that was the goal for any of the Marvel artists involved. Verdict: Secret Wars

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: I’m going with the group shot of menacing looking villains coming at the reader, over the monster face that I don’t think is scary or cool looking. Verdict: Secret Wars


Artistic Comparison: Crisis #7 is one of the greatest comic book covers of all time. Featuring the (I assume) at the time unthinkable death of Supergirl. Plus it started the trend of Superman crying on covers, which I don’t think I could support anything more fully, with all of my heart. It’s a well-drawn and designed image, with the appropriate amount of angst reflected on Superman’s face, and the appropriate amount of deadness reflected in Supergirl. The coloring subdues the background detail enough for it not to distract from the central image, while still providing a level of detail to enjoy on a closer look.

Secret Wars #7 is a pastel colored mess. I look at it and I think Easter bunny eggs. I don’t know whether I should read it, or hide it in the yard for the kids to look for. This coloring serves to draw the readers eye to the central image of the cover, which appears to be Captain America joining the Flash in the “trying not to relieve himself” pantheon of comic book covers. Look how determined he is not to do it! Bad coloring, and a horrible Cap face. Verdict: Crisis

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: As a kid, there’s no question I’m buying Crisis to see what made Superman cry, so that I can possibly try to replicate that event as often as possible. Verdict: Crisis


Artistic Comparison: This is about as close a contest as you can possibly have. Two iconic covers, featuring monumental moments in the fictional lives of the central characters. Both covers are well designed, excellent layouts, brilliantly executed. Crisis is getting the slight edge for the utter desperation and determination on the face of the Flash, and because Spider-Man’s pose has always been just a slight bit “twee” for me. Verdict: Crisis

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: As close as the artwork was for me, this is almost impossible to determine. Flash was far and away my favorite DC character, and this cover (even if I didn’t have the knowledge going in that he was actually going to die) promises his final fate.

Likewise, Secret Wars features my overall favorite character as a kid, wearing a brand new black-and-white costume that remains one of my favorite costume designs to this day.

Brand new costume Spider-Man, versus the final stand of the Flash. (This isn’t helped by the fact that I can almost guarantee that these were the first issues of both series that I bought as a kid too. I wasn’t too concerned with reading in order as a kid. I would have gone straight for both of these, because they were important issues for the characters involved.) Verdict: Tie (sue me!)


Artistic Comparison: Perez takes any advantage Secret Wars had so far with the crowd shot, and blows them all out of the water with this Crisis cover. Design and execution are at maximum effect.

There’s something about the layout of the Secret Wars cover that is just off for me. All the characters are small and spread apart, and the characters closest (and largest) to the reader are facing the opposite way. It just doesn’t work for me. Verdict: Crisis

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: Maintaining consistency with the previous determinations, I’m thinking I’m going with the crowd shot. Not knowing who Galactus is, or even being able to determine the magnitude of his threat from the image, I’m saying it would be a non-factor. I’m confident I likely know who the Joker is, and probably know who Luthor is based on Super Friends cartoons. Verdict: Crisis


Artistic Comparison: It’s no secret that the Secret Wars cover is one of my favorites of all time. Its design, execution, and presentation are flawless. This is the type of cover that would inspire me to try and draw it myself, with the battered armor and the seeming last stand of Doom.

You can never go wrong with a face-off cover in comic books, and Crisis is a very well done version of one. The rest of the characters swirling around in the vortex behind them. The layouts for the Crisis covers increased in quality as the series went along. This has as much detail as any of the others, but it’s designed in such a way for it not to be distracting, as many of the earlier covers in the series were. Verdict: Secret Wars

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: As much as a face-off cover between two giants I don’t know might be slightly appealing, there’s no way I’m passing on a cover with a character that battered and beaten up. I was a weird kid (and now I’m a weird adult) so I was into the death stories, the stories of the characters being battered and defeated, with costumes torn and frayed. No way I’m not getting the Doom cover, no matter if I know who he was or not. Verdict: Secret Wars


Artistic Comparison: This is going to be a sprint to see which cover is less terrible.

The Crisis cover is flat-out conceptually horrible. Once again, each individual image is well-drawn, and most of them on their own would probably make a quality cover. Actually, the Superman image at the top, and the Dr Fate image on the right would make pretty outstanding covers. As it is, it’s a mess and I hate multiple scene covers like this for the most part.

The Secret Wars cover is fine, there’s nothing really wrong with it, but once again the central figure has his back to the reader. It’s good in terms of the message it’s trying to convey on the cover, and it’s well-drawn in displaying that, but it lacks in dynamicism because of that choice. Verdict: Secret Wars

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: Secret Wars again, by default, based on me not having the type of attention span to stop and really examine the Crisis cover to see what’s happening on it. Verdict: Secret Wars


Artistic Comparison: I’ve always thought Doom was drawn like some kind of fantasy elf-lord on this Secret Wars cover. Once again, the coloring choice made was pink, but it’s less distracting this time, for me. It’s a quality cover design, but the coloring and facial execution are lacking.

Crisis features a giant monster being swarmed by an army of superheroes. The layout and execution are top knotch. The spacing of the heroes is good, and the angle of the action was a nice choice. Verdict: Crisis

Which cover was more likely to demand my hard-earned currency as a kid: Secret Wars may have been able to sway me with the fallen Marvel heroes in the background, if I was paying enough close attention. If I know who Doom is, I’m probably buying that comic. Assuming I don’t, I’m going with the giant monster battle.

Realistically, I’m probably buying both because they’re both the final issues of a 12-issue epic storyline, as depicted clearly on both covers. But I’ll go with giant monster battle for the purposes of this comparison. Verdict: Crisis

Final Count

Artistry: Secret Wars 7 – Crisis 5
Kid Appeal: Secret Wars 8 – Crisis 3 – Both 1

Overall, I think George Perez is probably the more appealing artist in terms of individual skill for more people. Again, Mike Zeck has always been a favorite of mine, and I don’t think his style can accurately be compared to Perez, because they weren’t trying to achieve the same results.

What Crisis lacked on the artistic end was quality cover design and layout choices. Some may call that a copout, since on an artistic level, the Perez images are probably better drawings. But for covers, I think one of the artistic goals is created a great cover image, and there were many times when Crisis failed to do that.

In terms of kid appeal, I was going to be drawn to the crowd and group shots on both sides. The more characters the better, and that probably continues with me to this day. Unfortunately for DC, I preferred the Marvel characters more from the very beginning, before even reading comics, so that was going to sway any decisions I made as a kid. Spider-Man was the key. Action covers, fight covers, this is what was going to theoretically get my money as a kid, over some of the more elegantly created concepts, but ultimately boring covers from Perez. And as I’ve said before, less was more for most of the Secret Wars covers. For the most part they all had clear central images that popped off of the cover, which made them stand out more than a well-rendered scene from Crisis slapped on the cover.

There you have it, the definitive cover-by-cover comparison of Secret Wars versus Crisis on Infinite Earths for the Comics Cube. I couldn’t let Duy’s probable DC bias overwhelm what was the clear and obvious choices for the covers, using the criteria he randomly arrived at as the basis for his baseless determinations, and bad decision-making.

Let this be a no-threat warning to you all. Duy’s one and only goal is to make you a Captain Marvel and Ducks fan. And only half of that is a admirable goal my friends.

The Duck half, to be clear.

(Don't forget to read Thor too, kids. -Duy)

(And also, for those keeping count, Ben and I disagreed on #6 in terms of artistic comparison, and #5, 6, 9, 10, and 11 for kid appeal. I guess we also disagreed on #8, because he couldn't make up his mind. Typical Ben. Cheating. -Duy)

You can read Crisis on Infinite Earths and Secret Wars by purchasing the collections: