Jul 31, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: Must-Reads

Guardians of the Galaxy: Must-Reads
Back Issue Ben
Ben Smith

I’ve covered my overwhelming adoration for the Guardians of the Galaxy in much greater detail before, but our illustrious editor, cheapskate taskmaster that he is, charged me with providing a more concise guide for your comic book purchasing benefit. It makes sense, this request, but it fails to take into account my deep and unyielding love for all things Guardians of the Galaxy (modern version). It’s like asking to recommend which of my children should be loved more than the other. It’s like making me choose which limb I need the least. It’s like making me erase all but one Deftones record. Alas, the task will be done, and with my usual level of minimal research and attention to detail.

I considered accessibility when conjuring the following list, but that’s going to be a tough draw when it comes to these specific characters. While I feel anybody can pick up these comics and enjoy them, there will are aspects of each that are at least enhanced by knowledge of past storylines. But we’re splitting hairs here, all of them will have a talking raccoon and a talking tree in them.

In no particular order:

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Volume 3) by Brian Michael Bendis and various

I feel like the current ongoing Guardians of the Galaxy series is probably going to be your most mainstream representation of the team. It’s been subject to an unstable rotation of artists, which may be a detriment for some, but considering the artists that have worked on the book are some of my favorites, it is just fine with me. (Seriously, Steve McNiven, Sara Pichelli, Francesco Francavilla, with some help from Olivier Coipel and Valerio Schiti. There’s not an artist in that group that isn’t a favorite of mine.) Bendis has his detractors, but I for the most part enjoy his books, and you can’t say he doesn’t come up with some entertaining ideas. The fourth issue alone is probably one of the best standalone Guardians of the Galaxy issues I’ve ever read. Iron Man fans will enjoy Tony Stark along for the ride at the beginning of the series, and X-Men fans will definitely want to check out the crossover with All New X-Men, The Trial of Jean Grey.

As far as accessibility goes, I think most readers unfamiliar with Angela will know enough from the story to be able to read and enjoy the comics, but to truly understand the full scope of the character and what she represents will require knowing about Spawn, the court battle for the rights of the character, and the end of Age of Ultron. Again, all background stuff that I don’t think is truly essential, but could be a roadblock for some. To me it’s all worth it thanks to the budding friendship between Angela and Gamora, which has been lots of fun.

THE THANOS IMPERATIVE by Abnett & Lanning and Miguel Sepulveda

An excellent mini-series that served as pretty much a capper for the ongoing cosmic storylines that began with Annihilation. Thanos is back and even more unstoppable, and the Guardians are faced with teaming up with him against a universe of familiar opponents attacking from an alternate dimension called the Cancerverse. Many important characters are killed in the battle to save the Marvel universe. The climax between Nova, Starlord, and Thanos is one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Accessibility might be a bit of an issue with this one, as it is basically the endgame for the past 4-5 years worth of stories. Again, it’s all subjective because it’s enjoyable enough as its own story to be entertaining, but it’s even more so after you’ve spent all that time with the characters before this.

DRAX THE DESTROYER by Keith Giffen and Mitch Breitweiser

This was the mini-series that started it all for the modern reinvention of the cosmic side of the Marvel universe. The first, and best, tie-in to the upcoming Annihilation event, which wasn’t even announced until the final page of the final issue of this series. Giffen was able to take a character I hadn’t even head of, and revamp him into being a character I would count as a favorite over the span of four issues. His smart-mouthed human sidekick Cammi quickly became a favorite as well before eventually disappearing, which made her eventual reappearance in Avengers Arena all the more exciting. A great story, and if you’re able to make the investment both in time and money for Guardians of the Galaxy, this is the place to start.

ANNIHILATION: CONQUEST – STARLORD by Keith Giffen and Timothy Green II

While characters like Starlord and Drax got their reintroduction during the first Annihilation event, the modern version of the Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t truly begin to form until the mini-series tying into Annihilation: Conquest. Here you see previously obscure characters like Mantis, Groot, Bug, and Rocket Raccoon get the fantastic reintroductions that would make them fan favorites. Starlord would be stripped back to basics as well, returning the character to his roots (and no stupid cybernetic implants).

ANNIHILATION: CONQUEST by Abnett & Lanning and Tom Raney

The cosmic event mini-series that would set Adam Warlock and a nascent Guardians of the Galaxy, against Ultron and his army of Phalanx machines for the fate of the entire universe. If I really need to type anything else to sell this one, these books really probably aren’t for you.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Volume 2) by Abnett & Lanning and various

This series spun out of Annihilation: Conquest and combined all the best characters from the preceeding years of stories into one exciting team. The stories were consistently entertaining from the beginning of the series to the end, so much so that I can’t really pick any single arc out of the bunch. The true strength of the series is the interactions between Starlord, Gamora, Rocket Racoon, Groot, Mantis, Bug, Adam Warlock, Drax, and all the others, which makes it hard to differentiate any one storyline. If it can be a detriment for there to be too many good comics, there you have it.

Accessibility might suffer a little bit by the heavy use of the original incarnation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a team of heroes from the future that would occasionally travel back in time and team-up with heroes from the modern day. While it was clever of Abnett & Lanning to integrate the characters the way they did, for anyone that isn’t familiar with the first version of the team, it won’t mean as much as it does to those that are familiar.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Volume 1) by Jim Valentino

Speaking of, our illustrious editor Duy Tano will try and recommend that you read the first ongoing series of the original version of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but you should not listen to him. You should never, ever listen to him when it comes to his ‘90s Silver Surfer and Guardians of the Galaxy mania.

That about covers it. While I’d like to recommend books like Annihilation and Nova, they are really slight on the Guardians of the Galaxy relevance. Starlord, Gamora, and Drax play roles in Annihilation, and the story itself is one of the best of the entire cosmic run, but if you’re in it mostly for Rocket Raccoon and Groot, then they are not in it at all. My full recommendation for those that can afford it, is to start with Drax and the Annihilation tie-ins, to Annihilation, to Annihilation: Conquest and all it’s tie-ins, to Guardians of the Galaxy (Volume 2), The Thanos Imperative, and then to Avengers Assemble (by Bendis and Mark Bagley) which revived the Guardians of the Galaxy for the eventual third volume of their own series.

That’s quite a commitment, but if you’re invested in reading good comics, than you can’t really go wrong with that stack of books.

And remember, never ever read ‘90s Guardians of the Galaxy. The first villain they fight is named Taserface.

Yes, Taserface.

Jul 28, 2014

They Were Only Grey, Slow Moving Ghosts

They Were Only Grey, Slow Moving Ghosts
Travis Hedge Coke

Joe Kubert's Yossel is the greatest comic of the last ten years.

Oh, sure, there are funner comics, sweeter comics, more exciting, slicker comics. There are comics that are equally emotive, just as inventive or intuitive, as well-drawn or implacably paced. But, for total package, Yossel is the best. The greatest comic of the last ten years.

I don't mean "greatest" only to imply it's swell, that it is a quality comic. I mean that it is more great than greater, that it is an immensity of quality, a giant of accomplishment and affect and meaning. A beautiful song in words and pictures and arrangement that fights to draw tears from me, with every page, that makes me feel both miniscule and heroic just for reading it.

Yossel doesn't sell significant numbers. I'm not sure that it is, just now, in print. (It is. -Duy) And when I have seen it discussed it is almost as an addendum to the more widely-known and critically lauded Maus. Not the same author, same tone, same techniques, but they share a period of history and they are both, in their way, a remembrance and celebration of family.

I don't like Maus. The subtitle, My Father Bleeds History? Makes me want to shout down at the pages, "Fuck you. My mom bleeds history. My grandparents bleed history. The guy who bags groceries stone drunk on Thursday evenings even though he's well past retirement age, he bleeds history."

I've never felt talked down to by Yossel, by Kubert in general, an exceptional man and magnificent talent. An exploration of how the author and his family might have fared had they not been able to leave Poland for America before the Nazi invasion, Yossel is a humble work executed with such integrity and bravado it lionizes no one and makes so many seem so immense, as if their integrity, their potential towers, and that towering is the more important kind.

In it, men and women are brutalized, coerced, corrupted. Children are confused, manipulated, starved. People are often scared, often cruel. It is people on all sides of every human engagement, after all. While often easier to think of history as something merely done to those who suffer, it is right that we acknowledge no genetic difference worth appreciating, between humans who are used and those who make you march. It's a stupidly simple precept, but we can never easily hold onto it.

Joe Kubert — who my autocorrect is determined to call "Joe Liberty" — is not going in for handwashy or waggling varieties of "moral relativism," nor is he indulging in the myths of "that is just how people thought back then." But Yossel is drawn in quick pencil, often rough, mostly first draft,and then shot high contrast so that flaws in the paper crinkled up and white out is glaringly brilliant, and that, too, is how he characterizes his people.

Even the purest, smoothest human being is flawed, if you look, our roughs and tentative first ideas are always happening, always there. Whitewash shows. Shadows are made of elements just as limbs and eyes and old comics are resultant from their parts. And, in sharp contrast to life, to motion and agitation and soul, perhaps also to highlight all that, sometimes there are fired shots.

Yossel is a love letter and a thank you to countless human beings. I think it's unlikely anyone could read it and think, "this is a man who doesn't love his family," but Kubert hammers on his mother, his father and sister, as hard as he gives to anyone. He doesn't saint them, simply because they are of his blood, or because he knows their birthdays. Kubert is intensely fair, in Yossel, and it is the horror of what some of the characters accomplish, horror reflective of true history, that can condemn them, not a blanket dismissal.

Good and bad are not genetic. There is no wicked gene to be inherited. As the narrator himself points out, as a child, those inflicting suffering on his family were, some of them, once his neighbors.

The rape scene, about halfway through, is the most unsalacious abuse. The sex is off-panel. The primary image is of a shamed, young but horribly aged woman, clutching her belly and staring to the dirt, while two uniformed men stand by looking at her, not noticeably cruelly or with cartoon sadism in their eyes, just sort of smiling. Which, frankly, is what most rapists probably look like. It's why it's so easy to say "he's young and immature" or "boys will be boys." "He doesn't look like that sort."

I am in awe of what Kubert can evoke with even his simplest drawings, with his flowing layouts that don't seem genuinely paced or planned because they're not six panel grids. He knew entirely what he was doing with Yossel, with each image, every panel, every page and scenario. There is, in this hundred and twenty page comic, a lifetime of perception, a lifetime of sketching everything, of paring details and highlighting beauty. In this comic there is perpetual "why?" and "what if?" like a kid doodling along the side of their notebook in a boring afternoon class. There is the directness and commitment of a child, tempered always, but never curtailed by well-earned and adult awareness.

Review: Supreme: Blue Rose #1

I'm reading Supreme: Blue Rose #1 and the first thing that comes into my mind is, "Tula Lotay's gonna be huge."

Lotay draws Warren Ellis' story about Supreme, the Superman archetype that may best be known for the time Alan Moore used him to write a love letter to Silver Age comics. Unlike Moore's take on the character, which was to intersperse a modern superhero story with flashbacks set in the Silver Age style, Ellis gets rid of the superhero altogether, focusing instead on Diana Dane, Supreme's equivalent of Lois Lane.

Diana Dane, a journalist, is hired by Darius Dax, a businessman, to go to a town called Littlehaven and investigate a crash site. What exactly fell on Littlehaven, no one knows, but Dax believes a man named Ethan Crane has something to do with it.

It's a first issue so it's pretty much all setup, but it's very rich in terms of setting the scene. Diana has dreams, and you know the dreams are going to mean something. Diana watches a serialized show on her phone while waiting for a meeting, and several characters that you can already tell we'll be seeing more of. Ellis and Lotay are able to introduce characters in just a couple of pages each and somehow have you feel like you already know who they are and the role they're going to play.

Ellis uses concepts Moore introduced, but starts from the beginning, rebooting this universe almost from the ground up. If you read Moore's or Erik Larsen's subsequent runs, you'll have an idea of what's going on, but that actually makes me jealous of the people going into this cold, because I think Ellis has successfully built up an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue that will make anyone curious about what's going on and wanting to buy the next issue.

Even so, it's common for a setup issue to feel like it's just going through the motions. That's not the case here. Not only do Ellis' words evoke a sense of mystery, but Lotay's art is just unbelievable. There isn't a single page of the comic that didn't blow me away. The dreamlike nature of the entire book, with the small waves of color operating outside and over the panels, gives it just enough of a feeling of magic that even if we're following the most grounded, "real" character in the story, you're always reminded something more is going on.

I know in a review I'm supposed to add a negative point that could be improved on, but you know what, I got nothin'. Just go buy and read it. It was the best comic I read this past week and I can't wait for the next one, so just, you know, go. Go already!

Jul 27, 2014

Review: Ragnarok #1

I finally received my copy of Ragnarok #1 yesterday, and I did not find myself disappointed. Walt Simonson's return to Norse myths was exciting and action-packed, with the first issue focusing on a Dark Elf assassin named Brynja in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. Leaving behind her husband Regn and their daughter Drifa, Brynja takes on a very dangerous assignment: killing a dead god. Assembling a team of assassins, Brynja takes on the quest, looking for their mark.

It's difficult to say what you will or won't take into the comic as you start reading it. The first five pages, which Simonson showed in its entirety months before the release of the issue, illustrate the battle between Thor and Jormungand the Midgard Serpent as it was supposed to occur according the the prophecy of Ragnarok. In these pages, however, it's told as a folk story. People following the interviews and previews (here's one) for the series know what's up, but going in cold will leave you wondering what the big picture is, and in a good "Man, I gotta get the next one to see what's up" way.

I find myself increasingly attracted to badass female protagonists lately, and Brynja fits the bill to a T. A confident take-no-prisoners fighter, her command of the room makes for a compelling read. The initial scenes with her family are enough to get you to root for her and feel some sympathy, even if you don't really know what it is she's tasked to do. She carries the story well.

It's amazing to me that at 67 years old, three decades after what most fans would probably consider his peak, Simonson is still as skilled as ever. If anything, the glossy paper and today's production values just ensures good line quality, and the inks are confident and bold. Simonson's breakdowns are as solid as ever, as everything is paced to maximum effect. There's also no shortage of background detail, and you really feel the texture and weight of this world as Brynja and company go around it. Simonson does a particularly cool effect near the end that never fails to impress me, which you'll have to see to appreciate.

Colorists are often unsung heroes, but I don't think that's going to be the case in this series. Laura Martin's colors pop despite the bleakness of the story and the situation. It's truly a feast for the eyes.

There isn't much negative to say about Ragnarok that wouldn't be centered around unfair expectations for the series, likely brought in by Simonson's association with Marvel's Thor franchise. If you're looking for Marvel's Thor, well, this isn't it (Marvel's Thor is kicking ass right now, by the way), and you're never going to get it. But if you like the fantastic, if you like action, kickass protagonists, a sense of wonder, even in the bleakest of atmospheres, and beautiful art, then you should give Ragnarok a shot.

Jul 24, 2014

Fallen Ash #2 Is Out Today!

The second issue of Fallen Ash, the fantasy comic about the residents of Aldergilt, dealing with the loss of their warrior, Ash, is out on Comixology today! In case you missed my interview with the creators, Kimberly Smith, Benjamin Bartolome, and Sam Gungon, have no fear! I've got you covered right here.

Here's some preview pages to get you guys amped up! Just click on each image to see a larger copy.

The first issue of Fallen Ash has received some excellent reviews from BleedingCool and Comic Book Resources.

You can download the two issues at the links below. If you're using a Kindle, the third issue is actually out on Amazon as well, although it's not on Comixology yet:

Fallen Ash #1: Amazon / Comixology
Fallen Ash #2: Amazon / Comixology
Fallen Ash #3: Amazon

Jul 22, 2014

Women in Comics aka Ragnarok aka Thor is Going to Be a Woman for a While

Women in Comics 
aka Ragnarok 
aka Thor is Going to Be a Woman for a While

"Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor." Those are the word inscribed on Mjolnir, the Hammer of Thor. Recently, Marvel announced that sometime later this year Thor would be portrayed as a woman. Essentially, the only thing changing about Thor (according to the sources) would be the character’s shape and appropriate personal pronoun. Grandiose speech, lightning, butt-kicking won’t change. Naturally, such a change produced Internet Outrage.

First off, Marvel was very clear to point out a few key pieces of information I think are particularly relevant:

  1. This new character is Thor, not some female variation of Thor, just straight up Thor
  2. They proudly announced it, this isn’t some gimmick (well, no more than usual promotional gimmicks) or cheap stunt

These are good points to remember because, when all is said and done, this change won’t be permanent. Male Thor isn’t going away and will obviously be back from some reason, most likely regaining his worthiness. That, sadly, is another function of the main universe of any comic, things eventually revert to normal. Very little is “permanent” or even permanent forever (ahem, Barry Allen).

Second, I think the haters have forgotten a few key principles of comic books. The first is that they are a work of fiction, ergo of imagination. The fault of a comic changing and you not being able to keep up is not necessarily a failing of the particular artist or writer, but rather a failure of imagination to follow along. Unless the art and story are horrible (which, lets be honest, happens) the characters and design are there to be shaped, molded and, yes, changed by times and the needs of the story. Whatever a character’s color, shape, size, sex or gender, there is a core truth to the character that a writer and artist articulate to make the character a success.

Spider-Man and Batman are on a quest to right a past wrong. Batman wants to stop other eight year old boys from ever having to lose their parents. Spider-Man is attempting to make up for a single mistake he made that cost him his uncle and father figure. What in these descriptions required the protagonist to be male? Nothing. Superman is an orphan from a distant star, sent to Earth and gifted with extraordinary powers. He choose to use those powers to benefit all of humankind. But Superman does not have to be a man to do this, the character just needs to be Kryptonian.

Third, it might be hard to admit this fact, but comics might no longer consider you a target audience. I don’t think I am. I may infrequently buy comics (very, very infrequently) and primarily seen 2/3’s of the movies (GotG, you’re number 2 of 3 for the year), but I know that there are people who aren’t reading comics who might give DC and Marvel a shot if the person being drawn as Thor/Iron-Man/Batman/Aquaman/Green Lantern looked even a little like them.

Readers want to be able to see themselves in the characters and situations. The true essence of the character remains, avenging a loss, making up for a mistake, flying around in a billion dollar piece of tech you designed to hide your alcoholism. The point is a reader of comics chooses them for a variety of reasons. One is nostalgia, but another is to use one's imagination to live the life of a superpowered being.

Fourth, and to reiterate, the changes to Thor will obviously not be permanent. Why? Because Big Blondey isn’t disappearing, he’s been found “unworthy.” So, you can get all upset that Thor won’t be exactly the same as he’s always been, forever unchanging and never, ever being a crippled doctor. Or, you can give something new a try and maybe, just maybe, it might be good. Now, you’ve just carved out a space for the possibility that comics can be a dynamic medium and not a static one.

Being temporary doesn’t diminish the change being made to Asgard. Rather, it challenges the comic, the story and the environment to welcome something new. Give it space to breath and see if it will work. If a woman being found worthy makes Thor a better book, a better story, a better place for readers to park their eyeballs for a while, who is really hurt by this change?

Finally, comics are escapism in a pretty blatant sense. If you can’t escape into the characters, why would you read and pay money for the stories? Moreover, comics - especially those in the Marvel universe - are about embracing those who are different, imperfect, and (ok, some not actually) human beings. They are about embracing change, with superpowers.

Without change, we would live in a world without Days of Future Past, a world without either Phoenix Saga, a world without any sort of Crisis. Our world, as comic book readers and society as a whole would be less because change was not allowed to happen. There is always going to be a vocal minority that wants comics to reflect an imagined past of art, story and characterizations. They desire the familiar, but it always just makes me think...

Jul 21, 2014

The Embarrassing State of Comic Book Fandom

The Embarrassing State of Comic Book Fandom
It's Not Me, It's You
Ben Smith

I don’t think I’ve ever been more embarrassed and frustrated to be a comic book fan, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the comic books themselves. I try my best to be a positive source of comic book information and conversation on the internet, because there certainly is no shortage of negativity, and I’d much rather share the books I love than complain about the ones I don’t. Unlike the past, comics have arguably never been more socially acceptable as they are now, and yet I find myself increasingly embarrassed to be associated with the comic book “fans” that populate the internet. This is not a commentary on comic book fandom as a whole (if the following words don’t apply to you, then don’t take offense) but the annoying subculture of online fans that are as annoying as they are ignorant.

It was bad enough with all the rampant racism following the announcement of Michael B Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm in the new Fantastic Four movie. Now, that same racism has reared its ugly head with the announcement of Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon, taking on the mantle of Captain America. Not to be outdone, some fans have decided to show how sexist they can be too, in regards to the announcement that a female will soon wield the power of Thor. These basement-dwellers often hide behind words like tradition, never realizing that if we steadfast held to traditions in the United States, there would still be slaves and women wouldn’t be able to vote. (I don’t mean to suggest that comic book characters are important as either of those two things, only that racists and sexists have historically hidden behind the same excuses.)

I understand the trepidation that can come with a favorite character being altered from the version that made you a fan of them in the first place. The thing about comics (and it’s shocking to me that anyone that has read comics for more than a few years continuously fails to grasp this) is that no changes are ever permanent. Thor will be a man before long, and Steve Rogers back in the red, white, and blue.

On the opposite side, would it really be so bad to have a woman and a black man as part of the unquestioned “big three” of the Avengers books? I happen to think these changes would arguably be better for the long-term viability and health of comic books. (It’s funny, many of the same commenters that are so irate about these changes, are the same people that complain that no change is ever permanent in comics.) The Avengers and the Justice League are a little too lily white to be accurate representations of it’s readership, and society as a whole.

Another criticism often lobbed by the perpetually angry, is that Marvel and DC should just create brand new characters, as if it is that simple. The only characters created by Marvel or DC in the past 30 years that have proved viable enough to sustain an audience, are probably Deadpool and Lobo, and that’s about it. Cranky Editor Man will point out that Ben missed Cable, as if adding Cable to this short list makes a difference to his point. Fans have repeatedly shown they aren’t interested in supporting new characters, so publishers really have no alternative if they are truly going to try and portray the varied demographic that buys their products. (Never mind that writers and artists are going to save any truly inspired creations they have for comics they can own and profit off of, such as Hellboy, and they should.) That cannot be done if they continue to rely on the same all-white, all-male characters created, at minimum, 50 years ago.

I know comic books can never be as great as they were when you were 10 years old, not many things can. If comics are no longer enjoyable for you (and they are supposed to be fun; remember, it’s entertainment) then it’s time to move on to other things. If you have nothing nice to say about comics as a whole, and not just a specific comic you found disappointing, please do us the favor of shutting up about it. You’re making the rest of us look bad. The world is a far too negative place as it is, your energy is better spent talking about things you enjoy. But that’s trying to reason to with the unreasonable, and the perpetually unsatisfied. It’s the main reason I will now be more cautious when talking online about the medium I love, something I could only have dreamed of having the capability to do when I was a little boy. That seems like a tremendous shame.

Cranky Editor Man has to wonder how anyone reading comics for more than a few years still gets worked up about these things, remembers how people went insane when Bucky replaced Captain America, then went insane again when Steve Rogers came back. It's fiction, folks. There's other stuff worth getting pissed about. I talk more about it here. But in general, how can a Thor fan not look forward to badass unworthy Thor? 

Jul 16, 2014

Riding the Lightning: Talking About Wally West in 2014

Riding the Lightning: Talking About Wally West in 2014
by Duy

In a few months, the Flash is making it back to TV after two decades, and Grant Gustin is playing Barry Allen. Although initial reviews of the pilot have been good (I'm personally happy he looks like he has fun being the Flash instead of something grimdark), there are several common threads I've seen to discussion about it, and they tend to be common threads whenever the Flash comes up as a topic of discussion. By far, the one that leads to the most discussion is this:

The Flash should be Wally West, not Barry Allen.

That one's a bit important to me, since if I had to have a Flash to call my own, his name would be Wally West. This wasn't always the case — I first started liking the character of the Flash with the first Super Powers action figure, followed by the first time I saw his entry in DC's Who's Who, straight after Crisis on Infinite Earths. And that Flash was Barry Allen. Even when Wally replaced him, it seemed kind of lame. I mean, Barry could travel at speeds faster than light, and Wally's top speed, once he took on the mantle of the Flash, was the... speed of sound?

In a word: la-aaaa-aaame.

But something funny happened, as time went on. I saw this on the stands.

Art by Brian Bolland

The Return of Barry Allen? All right! Never mind the fact that trade paperbacks were so rare back then that a storyline that got collected must have been special, but come on! Barry Allen was back! That's MY Flash! So, of course, I quickly snapped it up.

Turns out, it wasn't Barry Allen at all, but his old nemesis, Eobard Thawne, better known as Professor Zoom, but better known to me as the Reverse-Flash. Longtime Cube readers are aware of my irrational love for evil doubles, and if Barry wasn't gonna be Barry, this was the perfect twist for someone like me.

Art by Ty Templeton

What really amazes me, after having read it again recently, is that I now realize this: I was not bothered, when I read it all those years ago, that "The Return of Barry Allen" was anything but. I was not bothered that they dangled this tease in front of me, I fell for it, and it turned out to be false. It was perfectly fine. And it was fine because the story made Wally West one of my favorite characters ever, and used his superpowers as a metaphor for growing up. It was a good, old coming-of-age story, and for a guy who was into coming-of-age stories, it was as close to being a perfect superhero comic as I could hope for.

You see, Wally could only travel at the speed of sound, but Thawne could travel at light speed. With the help of his fellow speedsters Jay Garrick (the original Flash), Johnny Quick (who I marked out for because one of my first comics had Johnny Quick's origin in it), and Max Mercury (the Zen master of speed), Wally ended up figuring out that the reason he couldn't move as fast as Barry was because he was afraid of replacing Barry, confirming that indeed, he was nothing more than a memory. Thawne forced his hand — if he didn't replace Barry, Thawne would end up doing it. The ensuing fight scene was great, a truly climactic fight scene with a beautiful splash page to punctuate the theme of the torch being passed, and the perfect double-page spread to show Wally just taking the torch in no uncertain terms.

Art by Greg LaRocque

I followed Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn's run on Flash sporadically from then on. I bought the paperback for Terminal Velocity, the story in which Wally discovers the source of his power (The Speed Force), enters it, and comes back, becoming the first person to do so, because he was anchored to this life by the love he shared with his girlfriend, Linda Park.

Art by Carlos Pacheco, Oscar Jimenez, and Jose Marzan Jr.

I saw the love between Wally and Linda grow so organically and so naturally. Reading it now, some 15 years later, it even, if anything, feels more genuine. Here's a short sequence that occurs when Flash had to kiss his ex, Frances Kane, on public TV in order to get her to stop destroying town. Linda is understanding but upset, or so Wally wants to convince himself.

Art by Mike Wieringo

(Side note: Waid and Augustyn's Flash used picture-specific storytelling more and almost better than anyone else was at the time. I really appreciated this because it taught me not to take anything for granted in comics, since I had grown up reading comics where almost everything was overexplained. Comics have been criticized for being too decompressed in the past decade, and there is truth to that, but at the same time, it's not like most of the material from back when comics took a while to read wasn't unnecessary and artless exposition.)

In Waid and Augustyn's run (with a year of Grant Morrison and Mark Millar writing in between), Wally and Linda fall deeply in love, work on their relationship, and eventually get married. Waid and Augustyn leave with the honeymoon issue. Maybe that story arc, combined with the fact that I just love the iconography of the Flash, would have been enough to interest me in the series, but fortunately, it was so much more than that. After working his way out of Barry Allen's shadow, Wally West went adventuring with one of the most entertaining supporting casts of all time.

Art by Paul Pelletier

In addition to Jay, Johnny, and Max, the Flash Family consisted of Jesse Quick (Johnny's daughter) and Impulse (Barry's grandson from the future). Fans and creators alike tend to cite some ridiculous notion when it comes to characters with the same powers; they say that it dilutes the main character, but Waid and Augustyn proved this didn't have to be the case, and showed that superpowers are only a part of a character. If anything, it was about roles, and the Flash Family was just that: a family. They're the family you build, and Wally, having just "graduated" and coming into his own as the Flash, was the head.

Art by Mike Wieringo

Seeing Wally West's growth from insecure kid sidekick left on his own to the guy coming up with the carefully calculated plan to save the day was like seeing a friend grow up and come into his own.

The last storyline Waid and Augustyn did, involving the Dark Flash, where he shunted Wally off elsewhere for a while and replaced him with a darker version of himself (this plot device has been around for a while, but you wouldn't know it from the people still overreacting to things like "Thor's going to be replaced by a woman" news) really makes one appreciate Wally and Linda. Cut off from the rest of the world, where everyone has forgotten Linda and everyone thinks the Dark Flash is Wally, the Lightning Couple has to find a way to get everything back to normal. And they do, because Wally and Linda don't give up on each other and because, despite faulty memories and mistaken identities, the Flash Family somehow finds a way to get it together.

So on some level, yes, I am disappointed that Wally West isn't the Flash in the TV show.

But you know what I realized?

This isn't my Flash either.

That's Wally West from the critically acclaimed series from the 1980s, New Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez (only my favorite comic book creator ever). I spent two years tracking down just about every issue of this run, thinking, hey, I like Wally West and I like Dick Grayson and this series is critically acclaimed, so I should love this series. But no — I was still find with Grayson, but my other favorite character in the series became Donna Troy. Wally West? Well, in the series, he was weak-willed (they actually described him this way), temperamental, and a bigot. This characterization continued into his own series, although he was much less unlikable, until Waid and Augustyn took over the writing duties.

Making a character grow up is the job of a creative team, and Waid and Augustyn did it beautifully, but that portion of Wally West's life, to the extent that fictional characters have lives, is not only uninteresting to me; it's flat out cringeworthy. It's almost a completely different character.

Shortly after Waid and Augustyn left, Geoff Johns took over the title, and he did some interesting things, especially with the Rogues (Flash's almost affectionate term for his villains), what ended up going on with Wally, Linda, and the rest just did not interest me at all. It was almost like Wally became a supporting character in his own book, so that when they finally brought Barry back in 2008 and shunted Wally off to the side, it didn't interest me either.

DC's New 52 continuity recently introduced a new version of Wally West, who is probably a good character in his own right, but it's not my Wally West, not the one I have any interest in reading.

I guess what I'm really saying is, to the extent Wally West is my Flash, there is also the fact that Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn (and again, I have to mention Grant Morrison and Mark Miller for that year in between as well as for Morrison's concurrent handling of him in JLA) handled my Wally West. Before that, he was plain unlikable. After that, he was just plain. Really, the only other version of Wally West I've been interested in has been the one in Justice League Unlimited, which is really unfair because I like just about everyone on that show.

I can be annoyed that the Flash on the new TV show isn't Wally West, but what would the point be, unless I just wanted to be annoyed? It wouldn't have been my Wally West anyway. My Wally West existed in the  pages of approximately 80 issues of his own series and some 50 issues of co-starring with the Justice League. If reading those issues was like watching a good friend come into his own, everything that came after is like if you and that friend grew apart, you doing his own thing and him doing his own thing, you curious enough to check in on him once in a while to see what's going on, but in the end, being fine with not really hanging out anymore.

And you know, that's okay. Maybe TV's version of Barry Allen will be yet another character I get invested in, maybe the show will flop. Hell, maybe it will end up being my favorite version of Barry Allen! All I know is that after being a Flash fan since I first found out he existed via a Super Powers action figure, I'm just happy that this is going to come onto my screen at some point.

Jul 14, 2014

The Superhero Hall of Fame: Weaponry

Addendum: Weaponry
Ben Smith

With the all-important question of who is the ultimate inductee to the inaugural fictional superhero hall of fame finally answered, it’s time to milk this idea for all its worth, like a mid-‘90s Marvel storyline. Also, because I have no new ideas.

With that in mind, I’m going to discuss the greatest weapons from superhero comic books, based much less on science and math, and more on which ones I can think of while I’m typing this. So, just keep in mind, this is not a list of the most powerful weapons in superhero comics, but the overall best ones. Style over substance. Make sense? Oh well, there’s only so much I can do.

Last Place: Starman’s Cosmic Rod

Any weapon that sounds more like a euphemism for Starman’s genitals than it does some powerful object for destruction, automatically loses. Sorry, Duy.

Second to Last Place: Quantum Bands

Quasar, ‘nuff said.

20. Green Arrow’s Bow and Arrows

Gets the edge over Hawkeye’s arrows based purely on the boxing glove arrow.

19. Sword of Omens

Lion-O’s sword gets bigger when he gets excited and makes his vision a lot better, which is the opposite of my mom saying I’ll go blind if I play too much with my sword…of Omens. It also summons Cheetara when he says "Thunder, Thunder, Thunder...ThunderCats – HO!” (Also, it holds the Eye of Thundera and is the source of the Thundercats power and blah, blah, blah dick jokes.)

18. He-Man’s Power Sword

Sort of like Lion-O’s sword, except instead of being Lion-O you get to be a super-strong space Conan. Also, it turns your giant green space tiger into a giant green space tiger wearing battle armor. Plus, Teela.

17. Odinsword

Keeping the sword thing going, this is the best of all swords, because it’s the biggest. It’s also capable of ending the universe if unsheathed, which is as good an excuse for a sex joke as I’ve ever heard. Insert your own here.

16. Paste-Gun

The seminal weapon of the immortal Paste Pot Pete, who went around spraying people with his viscous white fluid. How this guy hasn’t anchored a major motion picture yet, I cannot understand.

15. Cosmic Control Rod

Like Starman’s Cosmic Rod, it contains the word rod, which is never not funny. Unlike Starman, this is a cool weapon for a cool character, Annihilus, ruler of the Negative Zone. Negative points for making me think of insect genitalia.

14. The Destroyer

An indestructible suit of pure chaos, powered by the soul of a willing, or unwilling, sentient being. That’s the main reason Duy chose it as his user name for his deviant lifestyle online profile.

13. Mandarin’s Rings

Ten rings of power used by a man named after an orange, or a language, or something. Either way it’s racist and you’re in the wrong for not enjoying Iron Man 3 more. Watch it again without your nerd rage and it’s pretty enjoyable.

12. Ultimate Nullifier

Anything that can make Galactus run away and hide, while making the Silver Surfer more miserable as a result, is a weapon worth making a ridiculous list. Bonus points for a name that could double as a sex toy.

11. The Good Samaritan

Hellboy’s big honking gun is filled with helpful stuff like sanctified wood and metal, and is used to kill everything from vampires to werewolves. In general, bigger is better.

10. Eye of Agamotto

Among other things, it gives Doctor Strange the power to see a person’s deepest and darkest thoughts, which is totally a thing a guy dressed in pajamas and a cape with a mustache like that would want to see on a regular basis. There’s a reason Strange is Duy’s personal role model.

9. Emerald Eye of Ekron

Actually the severed right eye of a Green Lantern power construct called Ekron, and used by the Emerald Empress of the Fatal Five in the far future of the DC universe. Emerald Empress has green hair, is hot, and runs around with a floating green eyeball, how did she not make the hall of fame?

8. The Cosmic Cube

Known as the Tesseract to all the movie fans, the Cosmic Cube of the comic books basically grants the wielder the ability to turn any wish into reality. It’s the equivalent of a small child telling the genie of the lamp that for his/her first wish, (s)he wants infinite wishes, except usually the Red Skull is around, which isn’t good. In summary, Cosmic Cube is a much cooler name than tesseract. Also, to clarify, I’m saying keep your children away from the Red Skull. Parenting tips are just one of the benefits of reading Back Issue Ben.

7. The Infinity Gauntlet

For fans of the Marvel movies wondering what all this talk of stones has been lately, they’re referring to the infinity gems, which when combined into gauntlet form, gave Thanos God-like power (not Asgardian God type power, Jesus type) including omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and probably a few more omni words. The gems that comprise the gauntlet are Power, Mind, Space, Soul, Time, and another one I can never remember (Reality).

6. Spider-Man’s Web Shooters

Extremely versatile devices capable of offense, defense, containment, or shooting hot sticky fluid in Doc Ock’s eyes or J Jonah Jameson’s mouth.

5. Lasso of Truth

Humbly speaking for all men, the single most terrifying weapon any woman could wield.

4. Batman’s Utility Belt/Batarangs

Batman’s utility belt has the greatest power of all, ultimate plot macguffin capabilities. Anything Batman might need to get out of any given situation is contained within this belt, because Batman equals preparation, and preparation rhymes with masturbation, which is something most Batman fans are very familiar with. (As opposed to Spider-Man fans, who are totally beating the ladies/dudes off with a stick. Wow, I totally didn’t type that euphemism intentionally, but I’m leaving it in.) Batman’s Batarang’s are the most common thing he pulls out of his fanny pack of justice, and they’re pretty cool, I have to admit. Though I don’t know how throwing a pointy-ended bat boomerang made of steel is supposed to be less lethal than using a gun, but whatever.

3. Captain America’s Shield

Captain America’s shield is probably the last weapon anyone else would grab before heading out onto a battlefield, but for him it’s absolutely devastating, whether it be on the field of battle in WWII Europe, or facing down Thanos in the middle of space. Indestructible (except when it isn’t) with amazing implausible ricochet capabilities, it might not be the most obvious offensive weapon, but in the hands of Steven Rogers it’s one of the greatest comic book weapons ever created. It’s also very hard to come up with inappropriate sexual jokes about, which is another feather in its vibranium cap.

2. Green Lantern’s Power Ring

The power ring is kinda like the top weapon on this list, except it turns you into Green Lantern, which is… not as good. It gives you all sorts of indeterminate powers like constructs and space bubbles, because…willpower, and it does other things like flight, space bubbles, and space flight bubbles. Plus, boxing gloves made of determination. On the bad side, it automatically makes you a target for purple space hitlers, and giant spiders. On the super plus side, Arisia is totally into Earthlings.

1. Mjolnir

All the other weapons were all fine and dandy, but this is the only one that gives you the powers of Thor. That’s better than Lion-O’s telescope sword.

There you have it, the definitive inaugural inductees to the weapons room of the superhero hall of fame. I actually started the list believing that DC had far more weapons in their arsenal, but like in most areas, Marvel outclasses them in terms of quantity and quality.

Unless you want to add Penguin’s umbrellas, but you’d be the only one that does.

Next time, maybe something else.