Thursday, September 30, 2004

Small Gods #3 - A Review

Written by: Jason Rand
Penciled by: Juan E. Ferreyra
Inked by: Juan E. Ferreyra
Colored by: Juan E. Ferreyra
Lettered by: Jim Keplinger
Editor: Kirsten Simon
Publisher: Image Comics

It took me a while to get around to reviewing this book, as I’ve had to struggle to get copies of it from the shop I work at. And by the time I DID get a hold of it, the deadline for requesting to do a certain review had passed. Thankfully, I was given free reign to review whatever I wanted this week and was able to grab the last copy on Small Gods #3 on my lunch break. So now, I can finally tell you all about what is easily the best new title to come out this year.

Owen Young is a honest cop. He is also a psychic in a world where telepathic powers are recognized as real and heavily regulated by the government. Owen has the ability to see crimes before they happen; a useful power for a cop. Or rather it would be, if bureaucracy didn’t require him to take a telepathic lie-detector test to verify each of his visions as real while the clock is ticking. The law also prohibits him from arresting people before the fact, so Owen has to hope he can catch criminals in the act before anyone gets hurt.

Owen’s problems begin when, during a bank robbery bust, he is telepathically attacked by an unlicensed telepath. Owen is able to push back, being a latent telepath himself. Unfortunately, telepaths are not legally able to serve as cops. This is due to all the legal problems that arise with mind-readers being able to find out just the right questions to ask a suspect.

It matters little that Owen didn’t discover his powers, weak as they are, until he was already on the force and it will seriously jeopardize the whole department, to say nothing of Owen’s life, if the suspect is ever able to identify Owen. To that end, the entire department steps up to back-up Owen, with fellow officer Jodi officially replacing Owen as the arresting officer and Owen being sent on extended vacation until the whole situation blows over. Owen goes home, where his girlfriend leaves him, afraid that her love for him may have been telepathically implanted. That brings us to this issue, which opens as Owen’s partner John shows up on his doorstep and suggests that the only way they can get out of this is to arrange an accident for the would-be bank robber.

Rand’s premise for the world of this comic is nothing short of brilliant and guaranteed to be a hit among multiple-audiences. Fans of NYPD Blue and Law and Order will love this for the spot-on portrayal of police life with a twist. X-Men fans will enjoy the more realistic spin on how superpowers might be a source of discrimination even as they are utilized and exploited by the same system that fears them. The writing matches the inspired premise, with all the characters possessing distinct personalities and the dialogue sounding appropriate, with a sprinkling of profanity but nothing particularly gratuitous. (No one F-word for ever five words, here!)

The artwork is every bit the equal of the writing. Ferreyra’s style is not unlike that of Tony Harris, but not quite so dependent upon shadows. His faces are as distinct as Rand’s personalities and there is little danger of any characters being confused due to the artwork. The phrase “photo-realistic” is bandied about far too much by comic reviewers today, but I am at a loss as to how else I can describe the appearance of the artwork here. It is something unique unto itself, and nothing emphasizes that more than the credit on the first page where Ferreyra is listed as “Artist” and “Greys”. There is no color in the comic besides shades of grey and the grey’s are utilized expertly, making every page look as if it were captured by a black-and-white camera rather than a pencil. But penciled it is, and quite well!

Monday, September 27, 2004

Looking To The Stars: What's My Age Again? - Part Two

I got a lot of feedback regarding my recent guide to the ages of comics. Most of it centered upon the current age of comics and where a line, if any, should be drawn in regards to where it began. Suffice to say, most everyone disagreed with my naming Kingdom Come and Grant Morrison's JLA as the defining turning point of the genre, but nobody else seemed to agree upon an alternative!

Consider this letter, from Robert Schwabe…

Okay Matt,

I understand. It's kind of arrogant to bring up your namesake over and over again. I get that.

But come on. You and I both know what the turning point was for The Current Age/Renaissance Age. And that was the introduction of James Robinson & Tony Harris's Starman.

(please forgive the rest, as my sense of time may be off)

Busiek & Ross's Marvels probably kicked it off, showing the Marvel Age as both glorious and horrible. Displaying the joy as well as the loss of innocence of the days gone by. But, it was a limited series, with limited scope. A wonderful Normal Rockwell/Ken Burns treatise of the Marvel Universes "Greatest Hits Album". (Don't get me wrong, I do love it)

Astro City kept the ideas going, but it was a limited independent series. Read by many, but not mainstream.

Kingdom Come was a fun Elseworlds story that had tremendous scope and vision. But did it really change anything. I don't see writers emulating the tone or vision that Kingdom Come began.


That leaves me to Starman. I remarked to someone once, that Starman was the culmination of every comic book that I've ever read. All roads that I have traveled, have brought me to this series.

From the moment you opened the pages of Starman every month, you knew that you were picking up a comic book that had a reverence for what had gone on before, and a new outlook for the future. Robinson & Harris created:

The modern reverence towards the past. Whether it was Jack Knight searching for 1950s Hawaiian Shirts, or sitting down with deceased members of the Justice Society. You could feel the love on every page. Would the JSA revival have been possible without Starman? Would the return to roots Ultimate Spiderman have been possible?

The new anti-hero. The slacker turned savant. Jack Knight brought in genuineness to the civilian side of the equation. Jack was not a millionaire playboy or a leading reporter for top newspaper. He was a junk dealer. He was one of those small business/shop owners you see everyday (and may even buy comic books from). Jack was a real entity from the 90s. I knew people like Jack. These days you see comic books like HERO and Secret Identity as well as television shows like Smallville, where the powers aren't the story; the people are. And the people are real.

Realistic villains. In "The Modern Age", there was a distinct change in the motivation of villains. I mean just look at The Shade, Bobo, Solomon Grundy, and The Mist. These were complex villains. Villains could now be heroic if needed. Villains could be misunderstood. Villains could suffer from inadequacy. This sense of the modern villain is seen everywhere today, I think. From Daredevil to JSA you can see this change.

Well, Robert. You won't find a bigger Starman fan than me. There are few who will sing the praises of that long gone and much missed title than yours truly. But even I have to admit that Starman, while being very much the epitome of the "appreciate the classics" attitude in comics these days, was never really a ground-breaker.

You mention Starman having realistic villains and a hero who was a real person. Big as James Robinson fan as I am, he was far from the first person to do this. Stan Lee started grafting complex motivations on his villains and writing stories that were as much about the hero's personal life as it was his crime-fighting some 30 years earlier.

I agree with you that Starman probably made JSA possible and that it was no doubt an important transition book from the Dark Age to the Renaissance. In fact, you can compare it to first 130 issues of Amazing Spider-Man, which slowly took Peter from his Silver Age roots into the darker Bronze Age.

As far as Kingdom Come not being influential, it was influential enough to inspire a short term "this is our definitive future" movement among the editors. Many issues did do stories based off of visions of Kingdom Come's grim future. Indeed, the final issues of Starman were influenced by Kingdom Come and the need to make sure that the "future" Starman was shown. It also propelled made Alex Ross the most prolific painter in the industry and won Mark Waid considerable accolades.

I'd like to say Starman was the point where it all changed, but I just can't justify it. It was always more of a cult classic than a franchise title and while it was critically praised, it never had wide-spread popularity nor was it a high-seller.

Blaine Thompson had another starting pint in mind for the Rennisance…

I think that we are definitely in a new age, but I think that Kingdom Come might be a little early. You still had the awful Heroes Reborn fiasco over on the Marvel end of things at that time. I think that a new age is when the industry as a whole moves in a certain direction. For me, Marvel's Ultimate line is a good beginning of what I'll call the New Age.

The Ultimate Line marked a big shakeup with Marvel. Some don't like the Ultimate Universe, but the important thing here is that it marks Marvel returning to more character driven books than major events. DC also seemed to get away from this pattern.

I think the New Age is a combination of the best of the other ages. You have the continuing trend of realism that started in the Silver Age. You have the social commentary that started in the Bronze age without the restrictions of the Comics Code. You have a universe of well rounded characters that can be as gritty as a Dark Age title, or as clean cut and colorful as a Golden Age one.

Series like Identity Crisis seem to take all of these elements and throw them into a blender.

Interesting observation on Identity Crisis, Blaine. I agree that it is mixing and matching elements of all the eras, though to what effect is as nearly as big an arguing point as when the Dark Age ended!

One problem I see with making the Ultimate Universe's creation the turning point is that Ultimate was more about creating a series that new fans could easily get into than paying tribute to the classic Marvel stories. Granted, Ultimate Spider-Man HAS been written as a tribute to the classic Spider-Man stories. But Ultimates has always been more about updating the idea of the Avengers than holding to the old stories.

Paul Sebert's complaints were different. Rather than debating the starting point of an age, he had issue with exactly what caused the Dark Age of comics…

Very good column last week, but I think you just narrowly missed the mark on just why things went so hideously awry during the Dark Age of the early 90s. Dark Anti-Heroes, Event Stories, and gimmick covers weren’t so much the cause the problem so-much as symptoms of the disease as was sloppy art and bad writing.

Greed caused the Dark Age. Not only were gullible speculators snagging up everything in sight, but even long-term comic fans were duped by the dream of picking up the next Action Comics #1. This led to a flood of people buying multiple copies of #1 issues and not sticking around for #2.

People generally talk about what was going on with Marvel, DC, and Image during that era, but tend to forget that there were many, many more companies trying to snag a piece of the market and make a quick buck. And I’m not just talking about short-term successes like Malibu and Valiant. Remember Tops Comics? Lightening? Continuity? Now? Defiant? Techno Comics?

Throw all those all together with both Marvel and DC making their own massive expansions and you have a dangerously over-crowded market place. Many of these companies were run by people who honestly had no idea how run a comics company.

And as absurd as some of the gimmicks and decisions made at those companies (anyone remember Plasm #0?) that wasn’t as idiotic as those being made by Marvel’s owner Ron Perleman. Perleman’s “why do a business with another company when you can just buy it” philosophy lead to a number of ill-founded business acquisitions (Panini, Fleer/Skybox,etc) that caused the company to bleed millions of dollars and climaxed with the disastrous Heroes World buyout. (for more on this read "Comic Wars" by Dan Raviv.)

Finally greed to a dubious “me-too” creative philosophy. Anything that was sudden success was given dozens of imitators. Prompting a dangerous boom and bust cycle among these fads. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a surprise multi-million dollar property in the late 80s, prompting dozens of indy publishers to publish books with anthropomorphic heroes for a few years in hopes of lining up a toy contract. Even Marvel tried to cash in on this trend with Brute Force. A few years later all of these copy-cats were gone. Today the Turtles & Usagi Yojimbo remain the only survivors of that era.

Then a few years later Youngblood and Spawn had made their creators at Image multi-millionaires, and dozens of creators were trying to imitate the Image Comics style. Then Bone because a surprise mainstream hit, prompting a brief influx of black and white indy books. And then came Lady Death and… well you get the point.

There are many, many reasons why the crash came but ultimately the factors within the market and the creative environment can all be connected by to greed and shortsightedness.

Paul's a great historian, but I didn't want to bog down the newbies with too much detail too soon. And the focus of the column was meant to be a basic history; not an examination as to what factors caused The Dark Age of comics.

Paul's right in saying that greed was the major motivator behind the Collector's Age. But Greed is the major motivator of most business on the corporate level. The individual writer may care about writing the best Spider-Man story ever, but the suits upstairs only care about how much money is getting put in the till.

By that token, the bad writing and sloppy artwork came about because of the gimmicks, not the other way around. Call them secondary symptoms if you will.

Publishers get greedy and demand that the editors get the writers to start toeing the line with the latest hot trends: anti-heroes, certain art styles and shiny holofoil covers. The writers and artists either don't care enough to put the full effort into doing work they know is likely going to be stuck in a bag and never looked at and start phoning it in.... or the company fires the people who decide to stand up for quality and get the hacks who can crap out scripts for five #1 titles in a week.

There are all the letters I got permission to publish from the reader. My thanks to everyone else who wrote in about the column.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. NEW Matt Website.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Daredevil #64 - A Review

Written by: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciled by: Alex Maleev
Inked by: Alex Maleev
Colored by: Dave Stewart
Lettered by: Virtual Calligraphy’s Cory Petit
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Some guys get all the luck. Take Matt Murdock. He’s a respected lawyer. He’s a superhero. And he’s gotten it on with a lot of really amazing women. Sure, there’s the whole “blindness” thing. And there’s the whole “not-so-secret identity”. And the problem of his being disbarred and probably jailed with all the guys he spent a lifetime putting away if anyone can ever actually prove that he IS a superhero.

Come to think of it, it really sucks to be Matt Murdock right now. Even if he does get more booty than Blackbeard and his little black book features an ex-porn star, three gorgeous professional assassins, a psychotic multiple-personality actress and now - an ex-wife.

If you haven’t been reading Daredevil lately, you’ve been missing out. Brian Michael Bendis has taken the book down a twisted path and every issue is an actual, honest to gawd surprise. Granted, this is nothing new as Daredevil has frequently been one of the most mysterious and certainly one of the most consistently well-written titles within the last five years. But Bendis has proved his metal and certainly stands worthy of standing on the platform with Miller and Nocenti. Daredevil is also easily one of the easiest books to jump on-to, as the plot thus far is recalled handily at the start of every issue so that newbies have no trouble hopping into the middle of a storyline.

The artwork is suitably dark and has a neat grittiness to it even as approaches photo-realism at some points. Maleev is a master at weaving shadows together and the book is dark without ever feeling overly inked. Indeed, colorist Dave Stewart managed a wide variety of lighting effects that covey mood very well. The blue coolness of evening as Natasha and Matt talk on a rooftop, the bright yellow light of a sunny autumn day - even the flashing red and blue pattern of a police car light are all captured perfectly within the colors of this book.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Men Of The Hour

My recent experiences attempting to get people reading JSA despite the heavy amount of back-story have led me to an epiphany. If the only problem is a clear and easy history guide, then I shall write one.

Henceforth, expect a new semi-regular feature as part of the usual Looking To The Stars columns. A JSA Retrospective detailing the history and legacy of the various characters of the team. These will be done as required by the current issue of JSA or as time permits based on request. (You'd be amazed how many letters I get that would be more appropriate for "Who's Who in the DCU".)

This month's retrospective: The Men Of The Hour.

Rex Tyler was a chemist in World War II, who created a drug called that would temporarily enhance the strength, speed and stamina of whoever took it for one hour. He called the drug Miraclo. He called himself Hourman. Rex would fight crime as a member of the Justice Society of America until his death, battling against the time-manipulating villain Extant.

One of the few heroes who actively enjoyed the life of a crime-fighter and saw it as much a fun way to spend an evening as it was a great responsibility, Rex still managed to create his own chemical company and develop it into a large national conglomerate. He was successful enough to marry an actress several years his junior (Wendi Harris) and had one son; Rick.

Rex was a great hero, but a less than dutiful husband and father. He was often absent, so addicted was he to the rush of fighting evil and arguably to his power-enhancing drug. Still, Rick did try to follow in his father's footsteps and took up his role as Hourman after his father's apparent death. Actually, Rex and the other JSA members were trapped in another dimension, fighting an illusionary end-of-the-world battle, which they later escaped. Still, for all intents and purposes, the world's first superhero team was dead.

Rick joined Infinity Inc.; a team of next-generation heroes, who were all mostly the children of the JSA founders. Still, Rick's tenure as Hourman was very short-lived. While Rex denied being addicted to his own drug, Rick was a definite addict. Worse, he was stricken with leukemia (a side effect of his extended drug use) and was forced to retire from heroics.

It was after this that a third Hourman appeared: this one a robot from the future, whose programming was based off the genetic code of Rex Tyler, in an odd way making the robot an ancestor of the first Hourman. Possessing far greater powers than Rex Tyler had ever dreamed of, this Hourman, who later adopted the name of Matthew Tyler, was able to control time itself.

It was Matthew Tyler who went to Rick Tyler, and used his powers to cure the cancer within him. Matthew then returned to the future, but not before giving Rick two gifts. First, he gave Rick the gift of foresight; to be able to see acts of evil he could prevent exactly one hour before they happened. Second, he established The Timepoint: a place where time stands still. It is into this time-point that Matthew pulled Rex, a moment before his death. The Timepoint will exist for one hour while father and son are together, hopefully giving them a chance to reconcile their somewhat troubled past before Rex must return to the point of his death.

Rick later joined the JSA, after being one of the few heroes not captured by long-time JSA enemy The Ultra-Humanite. Aiding then-JSA team leader Sand and a few other ignored heroes, Rick was able to save the world from the Ultra-Humanite's plans for world-domination and offered full membership in the team his father helped found. In addition to his new vision powers, Rick is using a new-and-improved, non-addictive form of Miraclo. Instead of popping a pill, the new drug is injected directly into him by means of a special gauntlet equipped with a timer to let him know how much time he has left before the effects wear off.

This was all turned on its head in recent issues, after Rick was critically wounded by a sword-slash to the stomach. Using the portal that sent him to the Timepoint, Rick switched places with his father, sending him back to the present to help his teammates in their battle as he became frozen in time, where he could not die.

Since coming back, Rex has actively avoiding going to see his wife, afraid of reopening the wounds of his death to her. It was only in this last issue, spurred on by the words of a friend and realizing nobody had told her what happened to their son, that Rex went to his old home to see Wendi.

Matthew Tyler appeared to them both, saying he could return Rex to the time point, as well as get Rick the medical help he would desperately need once time-restarted. Between the medical skills of Dr. Midnite and Mr. Terrific as well as Matthew's ability to increase the flow of time to speed Rick's healing process, Rick was restored to full health just in time for the Timepoint to begin dissolve. Rex Tyler's time was up. Or so it seemed, until Rick Tyler jumped into the vortex that would take Rex back to his death.

Where we go from here in the next JSA, I can only guess. I don't have the ability to see the future an hour ahead, much less a month. The one thing I can predict is that whatever happens, it will be enjoyable.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. NEW Matt Website.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

JSA #65 - A Review

Written by: Geoff Johns
Penciled by: Don Kramer
Inked by: Keith Champagne
Colored by: John Kalisz
Lettered by: Rob Leigh
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics

This is a great book, plain and simple. The artwork is never sub-par and the writing is everything you can hope for. The one complaint I have about the book? That it is somewhat difficult for new readers to get into, due to the large number of regular characters in the book and the extensive amount of history that Geoff Johns routinely draws upon.

True story: I have a regular at my store named Joshua. A few weeks ago, Joshua was looking for a new book to take up: something that was good, totally unlike anything else written today and above all else, about superheroes being superheroes.

A week later, he came in and said that he was a little confused about the whos and whys of what was going on. Still, he could tell a good ripping yarn when he saw it and that he wanted to know more. Such is Johns’ gift that he inspires people to read more with his complexities than turning them away. This month’s issue is a key example of this, building upon the subplots of two past issues and one of the more interesting, if unappreciated, new characters in recent memory.

A few months ago (or five weeks comic time), Rick Tyler was critically injured during a battle. Using a time-travel gauntlet given to him by Matthew Tyler (a robot from the far future, so advanced that his software is based off DNA), he went to a point in time where time doesn’t flow. It is here that Rick’s father, Rex Tyler, is being kept for one relative hour so that the two may have a chance to reconcile before Rex must return to the point in time when he died. All three of these men called Tyler have another common link: they are all heroes who bare the name Hourman.

As this issue opens, Rick Tyler (the son) is bleeding to death, but frozen in time so that he is not yet dead. Rex Tyler (the dead) has switched places with his son, and spent the past few weeks trying to fight the urge to go see the wife who thinks he is dead. And Matthew Tyler (the robot) shows up having just returned from the future, to return everyone to their rightful place and get Rick the medical help he sorely needs.

Small wonder some are overwhelmed by this title, huh? You have to have a full blown degree in DC Comics History to know who is who and what is going on and why. This comic is a total blast for those of us who can keep up with it (and mind you, even I get confused as to some of what happens in this title sometimes) but a total misery at times for those of us who can’t. Still, for those like Joshua who are willing to muddle through it, JSA can be a real treat and quite the education.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Looking To The Stars: What's My Age Again?

I'm often asked, both in e-mail and at work, about the various "ages" of comic books. Ages, in this case, refers to the various eras and epochs that can be used to classify the various defining moments in comic book history. Many newbies to the comics game and even some of the people have been at this a while are confused exactly what terms like "Golden Age" and "Silver Age" mean.

This confusion is well founded, for like most matters in our little hobby, the subject of ages is open to debate. Indeed, it is heavily debated and discussed at length by other scholars and comics historians. Sadly, settling the matter is not nearly as simple as going by the printing size of the comics in question. This standard, while useful in the design of the "Golden Age", "Silver Age" and "Current Age" protective bags many use to store their comics, is ineffectual in a discussion of content.

Many different events are held up as "the story that changed it all" and such distinctions are made upon a historian's favorite comic company or character as much as they are any historical relevance to the genre.

With that in mind, here is my guide to the generally accepted ages of comics.

In The Beginning…

Ignoring all discussion of cave paintings being an early form of comic book and the points that many periodicals in the 1800s and early 1900s featured illustrations to go with their short stories, it is generally accepted that the first comics as we know them today were published in the early 1900s. It began when newspaper publishers realized there might be a market for collections of their most popular comics. This lead to the publication of original material in the same format and the art-form began to develop.

The Golden Age: 1938-1949

Perhaps the only point that the majority of scholars agree on is that the release of Superman #1 in 1938 started what is commonly known as the Golden Age of comics. While Superman wasn't the first vigilante with powers beyond those of an average man, he was the first one to develop a major following and fueled the creation of hundreds of other super-powered heroes.

Superhero books were popular throughout World War II, with heroes such as Captain America fighting NaziTop of Form Ubermensch. Still, superheroes were but one genre among many at this time, with war comics depicting ordinary soldiers still just as popular as the adventures of The All Star Squadron. Indeed, after the war ended the superhero genre began to slowly become less popular.

Comics of many genres were published during this time. Crime and detective comics were quite popular and many young girls read romance comics. And of course, there were all manner of comics with scary monsters.

By the start of the 1950's, all but the most popular of the superheroes had lost their titles. Later writers would parallel this decline of the genre with the McCarthy hearings and say in retro-historical pieces that most of the superheroes retired after WWII rather than give up their secret identities to a dangerous demagogue. It is here, as we enter into the 1950's, that we encounter our first major point of contention.

Bottom of Form

The Silver Age: 1956-1970?

The Silver Age came about as a direct result of the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which allowed little leeway in what could and could not be shown in books that might be read by impressionable young children. Faced with the prospect of bloodless westerns and horror comics without horror, many writers and publishers turned to the one genre that still allowed them to show some excitement; superheroes.

Most mark the start of the Silver Age with Showcase #4, published in September 1956. This issue marked the first appearance of Barry Allen, the second man to be called "The Flash". Allen's creation came about as a result of a desire to retool some of the old superhero concepts into more scientific models.

This mirrored the new emphasis on science and math in the public school system at a time when we were all still worried about the Russians getting an death ray into orbit. This would later lead to revamps of other heroes, such as changing Green Lantern into one of a corps of intergalactic police officers armed with technological rings rather than a train engineer with a magic lamp. It would change The Atom from a 5'1" wrestler anxious to prove himself to the girl next door to a scientist who gained the power to shrink to microscopic size but retain the strength of a normal man.

Still others, mostly Marvel Comics fans and devotes of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, point to Fantastic Four #1 as the true start of the Silver Age. They point out that Fantastic Four was a landmark book, depicting for the first time heroes who really didn't want to be heroes. Whereas most heroes of that time took great joy in their powers and in serving humanity, the Fantastic Four were composed of…

  1. A war veteran turned into a hideous, by most accounts, rock monster.
  2. His best friend, a detached scientist who'd rather be in the lab than trading blows with bank robbers.
  3. Said scientist's girlfriend, who wanted nothing more than to be a normal mommy.
  4. Said girlfriend's teenage brother, who was more interested in retooling his car and using his powers to pick up women than he was in saving the world.

Personally, I fall into the former camp. I'll be the last person in the world to disrespect the contributions that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby made to the genre. Lee was the first writer to try and put real problems and complex personalities into his characters. Kirby was one of the spiritual godfathers to the genre, who revolutionized the way perspective was used in comic panels and no mean writer himself.

Still, it cannot be denied that while The Fantastic Four WERE an important contribution to the tone of the Silver Age, they were created in response to the popularity of the Justice League of America. The Justice League of America was made primarily of retooled Golden Age superheroes, including Barry Allen; The Flash.

Still, as heated as the beginnings of the Silver Age are, there is even greater debate as to what event marks the end of the era. Most those who argue the subject generally agree upon the end of the Silver Age falling within the same rough span of a few years but there is little consensus as to what specific event marked the end of the Silver Age and the age that followed.

I say "the age that followed" because even the name of this age, and its' very existence is a point of contention among comic historians. There are some who put the end of the Silver Age even further back than the early 70s, marking its end with the death of the hero who they believe started the Silver Age. Barry Allen sacrificed himself to save the universe from being ripped apart at the seams in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 in early 1986.

1986 would prove to be an important year in the comic industry and the start of the last agreed upon turning point for an age to start with. But that is getting ahead of ourselves, as we still have the most argued upon age to deal with.

The Bronze Age: 1970ish to 1986

The most contentious age of the four rough ages that comics' history is divided into, this one boasts a number of "beginning" points. The only major agreement between all those who argue one major event over another is that most of the comics of this time began to tell more mature, reality-based stories than anytime since before the introduction of the Comics Code.

Indeed, many of the "starting points" involve books that were published in defiance of CCA guidelines in order to tell a story that could make a difference. Many mark Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May 1971), where Stan Lee wrote a subplot about Harry Osborn's problems with pill-popping and Peter saving his "tripping" friend while wondering how he could do such a thing to himself, as the start of the Bronze Age.

A scant three months later, DC would go one-step further in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85, when they revealed that Speedy (sidekick to Green Arrow) had become a heroin addict while trying to infiltrate a gang. While Marvel got their anti-drug issue out first, DC won more attention for being more specific about what drugs were involved (heroin vs. "pills") and in giving the addiction to a teenage superhero rather than the superhero's best friend.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow itself is held by some as the start of the Bronze Age. The book had been simply Green Lantern until Issue #76, when it was taken over by the new team of writer Dennis "Denny" O'Neil and artist Neal Adams.

O'Neil had the idea of teaming Green Lantern with fellow JLA member Green Arrow, whom he wrote as an idealist liberal like O'Neil himself. He then began to push the genre by doing stories centering upon political issues and moral quandaries. No more would Green Lantern fly off to stop intergalactic bank-robbers; not when he had to reconcile his soul with the difference between upholding law and order and serving justice. Who should he help? The property owner attacked by his renters or the young man arrested for protesting against the landlord who was kicking people out of their homes to sell the land for a huge profit?

O'Neil's work on Batman during these same years is also heralded by some as the start of the Bronze Age. In these years following the release of the purposely campy Batman television series, the Batman comics suffered from the same type of cornball humor and hackneyed plots. With the introduction of new villains such as the environmental terrorist Ra's Al Ghul, O'Neil slowly turned Batman back into The Dark Knight Detective with a heavy emphasis on the dark. The giggling criminals were put to the wayside for a bit as Batman was made into a James Bond figure; saving the world through the use of keen intellect, raw cunning and a heck of a lot of wonderful toys.

Still, what is probably the most popular "start" point for the Bronze Age is The Death of Gwen Stacy (Amazing Spider-Man #121, June 1973). Countless writers have marked that event as a major turning point in the life of Peter Parker which still haunts him to this day. Indeed, writer Kurt Busiek based the last issue of his famous "Marvels" mini-series around her death and titled the last chapter "The Day She Died", paralleling her death with "The Day the Music Died". As much as the death changed Peter Parker, it would shape the comics-reading public even more. Marvel Comics had broken the unspoken rule that the hero ALWAYS saved the girl at the last moment and it was truly a momentous occasion.

And there are dozens of others points that can and have been argued as the start of this new age of comics. Conan The Barbarian #1 (1970) brought a hero who had no qualms about killing into regular publication for the first time in years. Giant Size X-Men #1 (1975) is often held up, as it introduced the first major superhero team made up of an international cast.

Still, for my money, I have to agree with the infamous Unca Cheeks of the much missed Unca Cheeks Silver Age Comics Site in that the defining end of the Silver Age and start of the Bronze Age had nothing to do with a comic story. It had to do with the movement of a legend.

In 1970, amid arguments of unfair treatment among other problems, artist and writer Jack Kirby would leave Marvel Comics, the company that he had helped found as Timely Comics and helped grow to new heights in the 60's, in order to continue his work with his former competition at DC Comics. Marvel was never quite the same after Kirby left and DC grew all the richer for his years of experience. While some of Kirby's creations are looked upon with a fair amount of ridicule today, his creation of 'The New Gods' and 'The Fourth World' left a heavy mine of material that has been put to good use by countless scribes since. And lets not forget, he created Darkseid who is probably the best new villain Superman has had in the last fifty years.

Still, it is widely agreed that no matter what kicked it off, the Bronze Age did come to a definite end in the mid-80's with the introduction of the first inter-company crossovers. While crossovers were nothing new at this point, doing a major story featuring dozens of characters from several books was.

Marvel was the first to attempt this with 'Secret Wars' (1984), a story in which Spider-Man, The Hulk and several members of the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Defenders and X-Men were pulled from the Earth by a being called The Beyonder, who wished to test the strength of both "good" and "evil" in an epic battle on an abandoned planet.

A year later, DC Comics would publish the twelve-part story 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'. The story centered upon the villainous Anti-Monitor, ruler of the Anti-Matter Universe, who attempted to destroy the myriad of matter-based realities. Many heroes were killed and numerous Earths destroyed. In the end, only one universe survived and the refuges of the various destroyed worlds were absorbed into the reality of this new Earth.

This was as much a house-cleaning project as it was an attempt to match the success of Secret Wars. DC scrapped the history of numerous alternate Earths in an attempt to make their comics more accessible to new readers who wondered why in some comics Batman was married to Catwoman and in others he wasn't.

This brings us to 1986 and the books that lead to the creation of the next age of comics.

The Modern Age/The Dark Age: 1986-1996.

There are two books which it is generally agreed ushered in the fourth age of comics: 'Watchmen' and 'The Dark Knight Returns'. Both of these comics were mature, thoughtful and definitely darker looks at the superhero than had ever been seen before. Watchmen was particularly gruesome, having starker portrayals of death, sex and adult subject matter than any mainstream comic beforehand. Still, despite its more graphic content, DKR was all the more shocking as it took two of the most familiar superhero icons in the world (Superman and Batman) and set them to war against one another in a dystopian future.

Both comics were critical and financial successes, inspiring a great deal of commentary from critics outside of the traditional comics-reviewing media. Spurred on by this success, the publishers began trying to market more titles exclusively to adult audiences.

DC had the most success with this, establishing the Vertigo Press imprint to better label their more dangerous properties. This included such notable series as The Sandman and Hellblazer, both of which started out as standard DC titles. Never making the jump to Vertigo, but no less controversial, was Mike Grell's Green Arrow, which drew sharp criticism and high praise for its' accurate, if unsettling, portrayals of vigilante justice and the violence involved.

Marvel never had the success with an adults-only imprint that DC did, but this didn't stop them from trying. As the age progressed, violent heroes like Wolverine and The Punisher became more popular, with the latter hero supporting several titles at the height of his popularity.

The anti-hero as a figure would eventually become the paradigm of choice for many creators and many more traditional heroes had darker sides grafted onto their personalities, no matter how poorly this fit their character, in an attempt to be more "gritty". In one particularly grievous example, the Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who had been given superhuman powers for being the bravest and most honest of men, would have his background changed so that he had a drunk-driving conviction and was responsible for the death of his best friend.

Image Comics, founded in 1991, would go to press with a stable of original characters made up of almost entirely of anti-heroes. While Image's comics sold quite well initially, they drew sharp criticism from some for excessive violence and poor writing.

Despite this, many of the more established comic companies began trying to imitate the success of the new kids on the block. Artists with styles similar to the "Big Seven" artists who founded Image Comics were given job preference over the more traditional artists in the hopes of winning over new readers. New gimmicks, such as restarting titles with #1 issues and alternate covers were tried, to win the dollar of the many comics fans getting into a burgeoning collector's market. And then came what many say was the final nail in the coffin: character death events.

The precedent was there long before even Image was founded. It was 1988 when DC conducted a telephone poll to determine if Jason Todd, a street kid who Bruce Wayne had adopted and trained as the new Robin after the old Robin left for college, should be killed by The Joker as part of an on-going storyline. The fans chose death, with a mere 72 votes out of thousands deciding the world's most famous sidekick's fate.

The death of Robin proved to be a sales bonanza even as armchair psychologists decried what such a vote said about our society. They would be strangely quiet some four years later, when DC Comics did it again with a story that came to be known as "The Death of Superman". Batman was put through a similar ringer, having his back broken and being permanently crippled during the "Knightfall" storyline. While both heroes would eventually recover (Superman was later revealed to be in a coma and Batman was healed by a chi-channeling doctor), the third of the classic DC Comics heroes to undergo a "death event" that year would not be so lucky.

Hal Jordan, the most famous of the many to be called "Green Lantern", had his home town was destroyed during the events of "The Return of Superman". Jordan went mad and wound up destroying The Green Lantern Corps as he tried to get steal the power he needed to "put things right", after he attempted to use his powers to restore the lives of all the innocents killed during an alien invasion he was not there to stop. This would eventually lead into 'Zero Hour'; a sort-of sequel to 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' spanning all of the books DC Comics published then and centering around all of the heroes of the universe trying to stop Hal Jordan from using his newfound power from destroying the universe, so that he could rebuild paradise and in-effect, play God.

DC was far from alone in this kind of gimmick-based writing. In what is perhaps the most reviled comic-book storyline of all time, it was alleged that the Peter Parker we'd been reading about for years was not really Peter Parker, but a clone of the original who had been "killed" and thought to have been a clone himself before his body was stuck in a smokestack and assumed incinerated. This would eventually and painfully be resolved some years later, but not before Spider-Man's sales fell to new lows.

In short, writing fell to the wayside in favor of artwork. Gimmicks of both story and artwork ruled the roost. And traditional heroism would be replaced by a "the ends justify the means" attitude.

The Current Age/The Renaissance: 1997 to Present

Some argue that we are still trapped in this era of barbarism. Avengers is soon to start over with a new #1 after several of the team members are due to die as part of the "Avengers Disassembled" storyline. Despite a major crash in the late 90's, the collector's market spurred on by several artists still continues albeit it not as strongly. And despite all attempts by decent people everywhere, Youngblood continues to be published as a small-press independent title.

Still, there are some signs that we have truly progressed out of the Modern/Dark Age and that a new movement has begun. Change occurs slowly, of course and as we have seen, there were some long transition periods marking the changes between the various ages. It is my belief that we are now entering a Fifth Age, where we are somewhat the wiser for the mistakes of the Dark Age and ready to move forward with that knowledge to create something new and wonderful as a tribute to our roots. Like the Italians who looked back at the great artistic and scientific achievement of their Roman forebears, we are on the verge of a Comic Book Renaissance.

But what event shall we say marked the beginning of this era? I can think of two to start with…

  1. Kingdom Come – 1996. Probably the most influential Elseworld Story within the last 10 years, this story was plotted by Mark Waid and Alex Ross as a direct response to the increasing darkness in the comic book industry. If you haven't read it by now, you really should as the story's moral about the importance of heroes not stooping to the same methods as the criminals they fight against is more relevant in the post 9-11 era than ever before.
  2. Grant Morrison's JLA – 1997. It all began with a simple idea; why not make the Justice League like it was in the good ol' days? All the big-name superheroes fighting against major, end-of-the-world disasters, once a month, every month? Simple. To the point. And bloody brilliant when a mad Scotsman named Grant Morrison pulled it off. Best known for his work on various Vertigo mature titles, Morrison showed that it was possible to do a smart, mature modern superhero title with an old-school touch.

So what do you all think? Was the "Dark Age" really all that bad? Is there some story besides Kingdom Come or the new JLA that shows a shift away from the values of the Dark Age? Are we really entering a new age of enlightenment? Or are we, to quote the preacher from Blazing Saddles, "just jerking off?"

As always, my mailbox is open to debate.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. NEW Matt Website.

Thursday, September 9, 2004

Birds of Prey #73 - A Review

Written by: Gail Simone
Penciled by: Ron Adrian & Eric Battle
Inked by: Rob Lea & Rodney Ramos
Colored by: Hi-Fi Design
Lettered by: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Joan Hilty
Publisher: DC Comics

This enjoyable mini-series has been made up of two completely separate stories, both stemming from the same investigation of a rash of teen suicides. The teens in question were all members of the same religious organization and were all found dressed in the costume of a dead teenage superhero.

In the first story, the vigilante Huntress has investigated the cult itself. The good news is that her back-up, the animal-ability imitator Vixen, is no longer being hypnotized by the cult’s leader. The bad news is that a number of other superheroes, including a guy who can move mountains with his mind, still ARE having their minds controlled and they just got the order to move in for the kill.

In the second story, Barbara Gordon (aka the hacker supreme and ex-Batgirl known as Oracle) suffers some kind of attack while trying to hack into the cult’s computer system. Though a stay at the hospital shows her to be fine, her partner in crime-fighting Dinah (aka the superheroine Black Canary) is worried that Babs’ sanity is no longer in mint condition. This proves to be a dead-on assessment, as we find out that Barbara’s mind has been invaded by the supercomputer Brainiac, who has been running the whole Church scam as a way of finding a suitable means of bringing himself back into physical form. Barbara IS that suitable means and between her DNA and all the computers full of alien technology she has access to, Brainiac is well on his way to being physically reborn.

The issue is split between these two stories and we get a nice study in contrast here. On the one hand, we get Vixen and Huntress doing the typical superhero smack-down scenes with tons of butt-kicking and ass-whooping to be had. In the other, Black Canary fights a psychological battle to try and reach what little is left of Oracle’s humanity as Brainiac tries to overpower the logic centers of her mind.

Less enjoyable is the contrast in the artwork. While the team of Adrian and Lea is as enjoyable as usual in the scenes with Vixen and Huntress, the Oracle/Canary scenes with Eric Battle’s pencils and Rodney Ramos’ inks leave a lot to be desired. Battle appears to be trying to ape Adrian’s style so the contrast between the two is not as glaring and he does succeed at some points. For the most part, his faces are far too cluttered and lack the smooth simplicity of Adrian’s work. This accentuation is furthered by Ramos’ inks, which are far too thick and dark to match the lighter strokes of the artwork

Monday, September 6, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Quick Shots

Every month, there are some comics I read that I don't get the chance review that I still want to comment on. Luckily for me (and for you, should you enjoy my rantings and find my opinions valuable), I have a whole column that I can fill with my brief opinions as to what's what on my reading list. So belly on up to the bar, folks! It's time to do some shots. And as always, beware of SPOILERS!

Amazing Spider-Man #511

Just when I think this issue can't get any more twisted, JMS finds a way to twist it further once again. Of course I know SOMETHING is up regarding these kid's ages but at least this issue settles the other big question regarding this storyline, re: Peter Parker fathering children out of wedlock with Gwen Stacy. Still, I can't help the sinking feeling that part of me will be screaming in outrage for one reason or another by the time this story is over.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Fantastic Four #517

You know what this issue reminds me of in the weirdest way? Ghostbusters 2. There's a scene in that movie where utter chaos is spreading around New York City and The Mayor says "Get me the Ghostbusters!" An aide hurriedly explains that he had them committed after they came to him with a warning of the trouble to come. The Mayor's response there is much the same as the mayor here, who informs the aide who keeps telling him that dealing with the Fantastic Four in the wake of their falling out with the public would be career suicide, "For the last time, your opinion is duly noted. And let me also add, you're fired." Forget the Stan Lee retreads of Marvel Age, the obsession with toilet humor in Ultimates and the inappropriate darkness of the Marvel Knights title. This is Fantastic Four, the best way, and indeed the ONLY way it should be done.

Final Score: 10 out of 10.

Green Arrow #41

No time for the mushy sentimental monologues of the Smith run. Forget the calculated ethos of the Meltzer run! It's Winnick's turn and that means non-stop action with demons galore! Okay, there's no ACTUAL demons in this issue. But there's a big red guy called Brick who looks pretty demonic! Who cares? No worries about taking a whole issue to deal with the ramifications of a Black Canary/Green Arrow break-up like some other writers did in their books! This is Green Arrow, where there will be no emotional investment at all! At least until we get a writer who actually gives a damn.

Final Score: 4 out of 10, and that's purely for the artwork. Hester and Parks deserve better to work with.

Fables #27

Fans of Sgt. Fury, Sgt. Rock and any other classic war comic will love this issue about a team moving behind enemy lines, lead by book regular Bigby Wolf. Next issue promises to be even better, as the tagline at the end promises us a fight between a certain patchwork man and a certain other man who has lunar cycle issues.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10.

Green Lantern #180

I have to admit, I got snookered but good on this issue. The double fake-out caught me as off-guard as it did Kyle. Great issue, but the sad thing is that Marz's run ends next issue. It just figures that DC would cancel this title after Rabb and Marz finally made it worth reading again after the malaise of Winnick. Oh well; hopefully Kyle will come out of this with his heroic code still intact.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Hawkman #31

Yet another one of Carter Hall's girlfriends is killed just to prop up some new villain. But whereas Johns took time to develop Cater's relationship with his co-worker before killing her, Palimotti barely gives us a chance to get to know the psychic singer Domina before snuffing her out. While this could be seen as tragic, it comes off more as lazy writing. And the villain, a walking disease farm who thinks himself the patron saint of healers reborn is sorely lacking.

Final Score: 3 out of 10.

JSA #64

If you're a DC history fan, you'll love it. If you're a Sandman fan, you'll love it. If you're a Geoff Johns fan, you'll love it. If you enjoy good comics, you'll love it. If none of the above applies to you, then you're probably a drooling Marvel zombie, wallowing in your own filth and a small stack of double poly-bagged X-Force #1's.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

JSA : Strange Adventures #1

This one has me hooked for another issue at least. Perfect balance of Golden Age heroics and humor, as Starman and Green Lantern fight Nazis over Gotham City. Meanwhile, Johnny Thunder tries to break into pulp writing by writing about the exploits of his teammates. This entire sequence is a laugh, with Thunder's internal injections as to what his friends should say being appropriate, but utterly horrible prose.

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10.

Phantom Jack

This series comes to a brief end with this, the highly anticipated "With Special Guest Star Saddam Hussein issue. Though the series is going on hiatus, there is a promise at the end of the book of more issues along the way. Good thing, because this is easily the best thing to have come out of Marvel's recent attempts to revive the Epic line and Image got one right for once in snatching this out of their hands.

Final Score: 7.5 out of 10.

Ultimate Spider-Man #65

What starts off looking like Breakfast Club 2005 turns into the typical 'Peter is reminded that "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" Issue'. This is not altogether a bad thing, although I still think that the death of Gwen Stacy in this book was an awful mistake and that the book will suffer from her absence. And I'm somewhat let down by what Flash Thompson has been trying to talk to Peter about for the last… god, how long HAS that subplot been left dangling? Taken for what it is, this is a good issue… but not a great one.

Final Score: 6 out of 10.

Y: The Last Man #26

This entire issue reads like several of the series of cut scenes from a DVD Special Features menu spliced into one story. What we get here is to see expansions on past scenes as well as some new "cut" scenes which show the life of Hero, sister to our main character Yorick as well as an explanation for what she's been doing the past few years in the comic. What we see does not bode well, particularly the revelation on the last page.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. NEW Matt Website.