Marvel Comics – the 2000s

Previous: DC Comics 2000s – Gail Simone

Goodreads Shelf: Marvel

 

Back in my twenties, the prime of my life. Although I said I swore off Marvel, it didn’t take long for me to get back into the so-called ‘House of Ideas.’

It was Joe Quesada in the 2000s who headed the new era of mature storytelling for a certain biggest American comic company. He did away with the archaic comics code authority stamp, that self-censorship system imposed during in the 1950s ‘juvenile delinquency’ scare, Quesada was right to disregard, and mainline Amero comics became more like PG-13 films or prime-time television dramas. DC followed suit eventually as well, took them long enough.

I particularly had to take notice when Grant Morrison was invited to write New X-Men. That changed everything. By the by, Morrison’s first for the company (at this time, never mind the 90s Skrull Kill Krew), was Marvel Boy. Totally awesome, with high concept ideas such as a humanless corporation villain and interstellar immigration policies. And a Fantastic Four miniseries illustrated by Jae Lee.

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So, while I was already there I decided give some other X-Men a go. Chris Claremont went to X-Treme X-Men, after his return didn’t work out. I gave it a chance. Chuck Austin in Uncanny was, unfortunately, considered among the worst runs ever.

 

Geoff Johns on Avengers, as said.

 

Then, Mark Waid got to write Fantastic Four! A lot of fun, and joined by the late Mike Weiringo of Flash fame. The first family of the Marvel Universe were seen as ‘imaginauts,’ as they explored time and space and other universes. Doctor Doom got a bit of an occultic retcon, and it was well done indeed. I love when Fantastic Four is done right.

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Earth X came out in 1999, but I read the graphic novel a year or so later. Created by Alex Ross initially (written by Jim Kreuger) following DC’s Kingdom Come, the dystopian premise was a future in which everyone has super powers except for Captain America.

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Jim Kreuger followed it up with Universe X and Paradise X, and I read all with great anticipation. Kreuger told a sort of final chapter to the Marvel Comics saga, revealing every secret character by character, giving a bittersweet farewell to everyone from Spider-Man to Galactus…

 

(Do prepare to see a lot of pics with Captain America standing there inspiringly, in this blog)

 

Meanwhile, the next big thing was to be the Ultimate Universe. Starting with Ultimate Spider-Man — written by Bendis whom I rarely cared for — it was a separate reality that was supposed to reboot everything for the sake of newer readers. Unburdened by decades of continuity, the Ultimate universe started anew with fresh modern takes on the various franchises.

Marvel Millar wrote Ultimate X-Men, and it was not good at all. Millar is an interesting writer; he’s pretty much a hack and yet a very entertaining hack. These days he’s only concerned with making comics to serve as movie pitches, such as Kick-Ass and Secret Service.

There was one masterpiece that stood out. Ultimates, by Millar and brilliant artist Bryan Hitch. That is, specifically the 13-issue Ultimates and sequal 13-issue Ultimates 2.

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There wouldn’t even be the Avengers film phenomenon if not for Ultimates.

Millar was very successful at turning the Avengers into an incredibly awesome action movie franchise. Of the ‘widescreen’ style, written snarkily like the wittiest rated R cult classic, there was Captain America as WWII badass, homicidal Hulk, and biggest impact of all was Tony Stark/Iron Man as self-obsessed genius asshole. Thor as a new age guru was an interesting take. The super team and S.H.E.I.L.D. were all presented bit fascistic if you analyze too much, yet what a ride.

Very quotable. Cap: “SURRENDER??!! You think this letter on my head stands for France?” And when the villains overtake Manhattan: “The Great Satan has been liberated.”

With the climax of the first volume fighting aliens, familiar? I must admit I am definitely invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I fully give the Ultimates their do!

 

Other Mark Millar impacts included the crossover Civil War. Which will be getting a movie.

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I didn’t read most crossovers of that decade. Secret Invasion by Bendis, no way. Fear Itself, yawn. Civil War was on of those cynical ‘realistic superhero’ tales in which Captain America goes to war with Iron Man over government registration of superhumans. The trade reprint seemed worth a read at the bookstore but not buying.

Spider-Man famously gave up his secret identity at the time, siding with Iron Man and revealing himself on camera as Peter Parker. Obviously, there was a retcon soon after and that never happened; back to the ol’ status quo for Spidey.

Afterwards, Cap was assassinated and resurrected Bucky/Winter Soldier replaced him for a while. I read some of Ed Brubaker’s run, it was critically acclaimed and so on, but kind of boring with all the predictable resurrections.

 

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Geoff Johns – DC Comics 2000s

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Met at comic shop opening L.A. Comic writers are always such nice guys.

Geoff Johns largely WAS the face DC Comics of the 2000s, in my twenty-something resurgence as a hardcore comics geek I basically read every single one of his books that entire decade.

 

Note: Goodreads Shelf: Geoff Johns — that 68 at last count

 

Johns is not going to win any big literary awards and change your life, and that’s not the point. He is a great entertainer, a great storyteller, never dumbing down and utilizing the best aspects of the superhero genre. Throughout the 2000s, he was particularly skilled at taking complex continuity and streamlining into a way that pleased hardcore fans and newcomers alike. Nowadays is a different story, but that’s what it was like at the time.

I remember first discovering the former screenwriter’s first published Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. at the very beginning, a certain humble 12-issue series about the Star-Spangled Kid, an update on old Golden Age retired heroes. It was the perfect start. Nothing grim and gritty (although later I’d learned the main character Courtney Whitmore was based on Johns’ deceased sister), just fun comics with respect towards history.

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This also concerns Starman. Written by James Robinson in the 90s, Starman was one of DC’s finest works. Another legacy comic about a modern take on the Golden Age, Starman was very different from the norm. Jack Knight might be called a hipster hero today. His dad was the original Starman, and he was a normal, cultural guy with tattoos and good taste in movies, forced into the life.

Ultimately James Robinson ushered in the new JSA: the Justice Society of America. Thanks must also go to the success of the JLA at the same time, and DC was trying harder with classic team books.

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Geoff Johns wrote from issue 5 and up to the end, and it was something special indeed. Unlike previous incarnations of these characters in Infinity Inc., the new book was ambitious and quickly became the centerpiece of the DC Universe. Arguably more crucial than the Justice League themselves. The society saved the world, introduced new mythos, let the original Flash and Green Lantern and Wildcat mentor the next generation, and not to mention a return to glory for Hawkman.

 

As for solo heroes, Geoff Johns took over The Flash…

This was back in the Wally West days, not Barry Allen like the new show currently airing. Barry had died way back in the Crisis on Infinite Earths event in the 80s, long replaced by his now grown sidekick. Wally was more of an everyman hero, without a secret identity, but still very much in the mainstream superhero scene.

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Flash already had very high standards, thanks to the extremely talented Mark Waid, and Johns – joined by artist Scott Kollins – focused on Wally as a sort of working class hero in a pseudo-Detroit. The villains were given the utmost important, with the Rogue’s Gallery often being the stars.

The Flash became my favorite hero of all.

I still really miss Wally West…

 

Geoff Johns was gaining traction, and got noticed by Marvel Comics. He had a brief run over on the flagship title The Avengers, as well some other miniseries such as The Vision and The Thing. He did as well there as expected – he was perfectly suited to Captain American in particular. Sadly, it was over all too fast and Johns signed on to be exclusive with DC and the run abruptly ended after a mere 20 issues. Avengers after that became New Avengers  by Bendis and I was no fan; that was point I cut off all Marvel and focused only on DC.

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Geoff Johns kept going. Teen Titans debuted, fusing the 80s Titans fused with Young Justice. I didn’t love the art and I kinda missed Peter David, but it was very much worth reading. Robin, Superboy (now revealed to be… spoiler ahead… Lex Luthor’s clone!), and Impulse took up the mantle of Kid Flash.

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This would not be a post about Geoff Johns however, if I did not speak of his epics of epics: Green Lantern!

(Note many of the pics below I simply took myself, as I thought these comics worth saving in my China apartment right now)

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Superman!

Prev: DC – 80s

Goodreads Shelf: Superman

If any one character deserves a really long solo post, it is Superman. That is, not just comic book/superhero characters. Any one character in all American fiction, period.

Most would agree that Superman is very important. However, he hasn’t gotten the movies he deserves (at least since the late 70s). Hasn’t been a top seller in ages. And everyone likes Batman better.

Don’t get me wrong, I love love love Batman. But I always felt resentful that everyone thinks the caped crusader is so much cooler than Superman. I prefer the Man of Steel out of sheer spite.

Seriously, I am a sincere fan. I like escapism, science fiction, exploding planets, time travel, that’s what comics are all about to me. It’s funny Batman is more grounded in the real world, yet he’s in the Justice League with aliens and mermen. I will admit one discrepancy: Superman needs Batman as part of his mythos but the other way around isn’t necessary. Batman can be in both worlds. More on Batman later.

First of all, let’s just admit that the superhero genre is supposed to be a bit corny. We’re talking about muscle men in skintight outfits saving the world from super-villains; it’s not meant to be gritty and realistic! That’s me. I find the literary quality comes from taking 1950s children’s stories and then somehow grounding them in plausible scenarios.

I like corny heroes. Captain America is my favorite Marvel superhero of all, and Cyclops is my favorite X-Men.

On Superman… Shall I start at beginning? In 1938 Jerry Seigel Joe Shuster created ushered in the superhero genre, a true American creation as valid as jazz, punk rock, and pop art. The metaphor is obvious in retrospect, the last son of the planet Krypton disguises himself as mild-mannered Clark Kent: He is the proverbial Jewish immigrant.

The Golden Age was the beginning. The Silver Age was totally weird and psychedelic. We’re all familiar with the films. Pre-Crisis Superman is classic, but he was a bit stiff. Too perfect, with only kryptonite as a weakness, he more than anyone needed a reboot.

Before the Crisis, noted genius Alan Moore and iconic artist Curt Swan produced Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow as this iteration’s last hurrah. Nostalgic yet serious at the same time, and nobody could write it like Moore. Goodbye, Kal-El.

“An imaginary story. Aren’t they all…?”

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Then the Crisis happened. The previous “didn’t count”, or something. So came Marvel star John Byrne to do Superman his way. It wasn’t bad, but I preferred Byrne on team books like Fantastic Four. At least Clark Kent was three-dimensional. At least Lex Luthor was more formidable. New villains were introduced, but mostly it was just the start until the 90s Superman was to be fully fleshed out.

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Dan Jurgens was in charge by then. Louise Simonson of X-Men fame was a good writer as well. Lex Luthor was cloned and recloned — kryptonite poisoning you see — Kirby-esque Cadmus Labs was made integral, Maggie Sawyer of the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit, and Clark even revealed his secret identity to Lois Lane when he proposed. A lot was added to the backstory.

Things were looking up. Yet, with all that competition from Marvel with those big crossovers, DC had to do something drastic to get noticed. They wanted an event. Hence came Doomsday, and the pivotal Death of Superman event.

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Doomsday was a kickass villain. About damn time Superman faced more physical threats. Still, Doomsday had a rather simplistic motivation. He was mysterious and we later learned more, but the real point of the death was to introduce the Resurrection of Superman.

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Superboy, the new clone. The Eradicator, a Kryptonian intelligence. Steel, a new DC hero of Justice League merit. And the badass looking Cyborg, whom of course turned out to be the villain. Then Superman came back to life, albeit with a mullet, and it was an epically great story unlike any other. We all have the fondest memories.

 

Over in the other side of the DC universe in the mid-90s, much was stalling. Meanwhile, the great Grant Morrison proposed that DC simply utilize the best they have and make the Justice League the premier team they were in the Silver Age. After doing away with the endless spinoff aspects, Mr. Morrison put in Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martain Manhunter and made it as awesome as possible. Unfortunately, it all started during the mullet era.

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Grant Morrison’s take on Superman, as well as Mark Waid’s, was crucial to how the character evolved in the 90s and 2000s. DC purposely wanted to downplay the more omnipotent aspects to Superman, make him just another decent hero with various states of dramatic conflict fighting average villains. But the critically-acclaimed writers wabted a classic Superman, embracing what makes him “super” instead of toning him down. JLA (Justice League of America) worked, it was DC’s top seller for years, the only title that legitimately competed with Marvel. Was a more cosmic take on Superman valid after all?

Perhaps. And then they changed his powers and him electric, a controversial move. Still lambasted today, though I kinda liked it. Whenever there are great changes to the status quo we all know it’s temporary, so why not have fun for the time being? Least he got a haircut.

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Finally, in the 2000s it was decided that Superman should be more pure. Enough of the gimmicks. Grant Morrison and Mark Waid unfortunately didn’t get to lead the way, but writer Jeph Loeb and artist Ed McGuinness did their best.

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I didn’t like Jeph Loeb’s writing, but McGuinness was spectacular. I say the cartoony-look worked well. Joe Kelly writing Action Comics was most brilliant of all. I miss that era. It all climaxed in the Our Worlds at War crossover, where Superman and the JLA fought a Galactus-type new space nemesis, Imperiex.

 

On villains, yes some are too lame. Toyman, the Prankster. Mxyzptlk ok. Lex Luthor, of course, is great but has always suffered from being a normal human up against the power of a Superman — intellect or no.

Metallo is cool. Parasite is decent. But overall, Superman’s old school villains haven’t been the best. Especially when compared to the classic rogue’s galleries of Batman, Spider-Man, and the Flash.

As said, I believe Lex’s rebirth in the 80s as a sleazy businessmen was a great improvement. In the 2000s, it went one step further. President Lex.

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(Which “coincidentally” corresponded to the W. Bush years. Life imitates art or art imitates life? Seriously, I’m asking.)

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DC Comics – 1990s

Previous: Marvel Comics – 1990s

DC vs Marvel, the original nerd debate…

First of all, I grew up on Marvel. The House of Ideas, “Stan Lee presents…” all that. It sustained me during my awkward adolescence. And then, I grew out of it.

By the middle of my high school years, I was still very much obsessed with comics but my standards were higher. While Marvel always focused on art, DC focused more on writing. It’s a fact you can look up: in comics scriptwriting there is a style called the Marvel style in which the author makes a brief outline, and the artist effectively tells the story (like a film director) and afterwards the author fills in the dialogue. It evolved from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby doing a dozen comics a month during the Silver Age in the 60s.

DC is more traditional. They do scripts with all the panel layouts and details written in, and depending on how visual a thinker the writer that can include a lot of detail. Think of a film/TV script except the writer actually has authority. So while Marvel had all their famous artists  and had all their editorial-controlled characters in endless crossovers, DC had far more literary stories. Especially back in the 90s. Marvel always outsold the latter, but DC won awards and eventually even created the Vertigo imprint for more mature, adult-oriented work.

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For me, it mostly began with the seminal Death of Superman event. Remember that? Doomsday, the four replacements, the post-resurrection mullet. It was awesome! Like many casual readers, I ate that up. Unlike many others, I stuck around and went backwards and learned all about such histories as the Eradicator and so on.

However, an important character like Superman will soon get his own post. Batman as well. Then Vertigo, and various authors. This post is simply about DC in general in the decade.

Starting from that jumping point, Dan Jurgens was one of the main architects of the Superman mythos in the 90s and he was also briefly in charge of the Justice League. If you remember from the Death of Superman graphic novel, there was the Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, Fire & Ice. That actually goes back to the 80s Justice League. (80s post next. It’s tricky writing these things going backwards chronologically.)

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Dan Jurgens was also unfortunately responsible for writing and illustrating the 1994 crossover Zero Hour. It was itself a pale shadow of the epic Crisis on Infinite Earths of the 1980s – again, next post – and frankly it wasn’t that good. Green Lantern turned out to be the villain, they tried to fix some continuity problems, and they released special issue number “zero”s with new origin stories.

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Some of the tie-ins were good, some weren’t. I read many of them. In doing so, I realized I had a lot of work ahead of me to master this new universe. Exciting times for an escapist teen… I proceeded to go to my local bookstore, back when Borders was a thing (RIP Borders!) and read all the graphic novels I could. I did my usual thing of searching for discount back issues at used markets. On Wednesdays I filled up my pull list with the best of DC.

Yes, the teenage me of the mid-90s really wanted to focus all his attention on learning about the DC Universe. Seemed like a good idea at the time, seemed I had nothing better to do. I am glad I did. The fondest memories of that age.

Let’s continue with writer Mark Waid and the Flash.

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Looks like the Flash is already getting some new buzz with the TV show. I heard it’s good. I’ll binge-watch it later.

The Flash does in fact have one of the greatest rogues gallery in comics, right up there with Batman in Spider-Man, and they’re called the Rogues. Captain Boomerang, Captain Cold, the Trickster, Grodd. There were many Flashes in fact, and my incarnation will always be Wally West the former Kid Flash. I loved that he had no secret identity, that he grew up in the community of superheroes. I enjoyed the generational and family elements with all the different Flashes. There was time travel, speedster ninjas, all you could want. None of that lame dystopianism that other superhero comics faked in bad attempts to be relevant; Mark Waid always knew how to write with heart and respect to the genre. Waid made Flash a must-read comic, added the Zen-style “speed force” to it all, and also created Impluse.

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Mr. Waid’s true opus was the 1996 miniseries Kingdom Come, brilliantly painted by Alex Ross of Marvels fame. While Marvels was about the past, Kingdom Come was about the future. With much commentary about bad 90s comics, the plot concerned an aging Superman coming out of retirement to save a bitter, cynical world from violent antiheroes.

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Every page contained a thousand references. This kind of story must be studied to be fully appreciated. I also liked the less-acclaimed followup, The Kingdom, which further fleshed out the setting of tomorrow.

Peter David was a fine writer, let me reiterate. While I first came across his writing in the X-Men spinoff X-Factor, and of course the Hulk, my favorite of his work was Aquaman (Also Supergirl, but about that later Superman post…)

Aquaman has always gotten an undeserved bad rap, damn you Superfriends cartoon! It was the 90s, they had to make him “badass” with the hook for hand and long hair. But I think it worked. I enjoyed the mythology of Atlantis, the politics of his being a king, and the revamped origin story in which he was raised by dolphins.

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Marvel Comics – 1990s

Previous: Marvel in the 80s

Although I consider the 80s to be the peak, if I still had all those boxes you would find more 90s Marvel than anything else. It would almost be embarrassing, revealing my guiltiest pleasures of camp boys adventure stories. How fun they were.

I have since sold all my Marvels on ebay, saved others, but the memories remain. Again, Goodreads Marvel shelf

It was the 1990s comic boom, when gimmicks and crossovers and COLLECTIBLE NEW ISSUE 1! desperately pleaded you to buy multiple copies. The economy was good, everyone thought they’d get rich by selling Spawn # 1 (they wouldn’t) and I was in the thick of it. More on Image comics in a moment.

Marvel upped their crossovers like never before, and I’d like to start with Infinity War. That is pretty much the epitome of the era. Not to mention they’ll apparently make a movie of it.

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Infinity Gauntlet, by Jim Starlin, was brilliant. The villainous Thanos destroyed half of all life in the universe. It was cosmic. Jim Starlin’s space opera mythos will get its own post eventually. However, after Infinity Gauntlet concluded, the franchise was totally milked. The Infinity Watch series with Adam Warlock, The Infinity War and Infinity Crusade crossovers, it kept going. And I, at the time, loved it.

Another crossover was Avengers: Operation Galactic Storm, about an outer space war between the Kree and Shi’ar empires going to war. Perfect example of this sort of thing. 19 parts I think? It took me forever to track down each one and read the whole thing.

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What really deserves mention on this sort of thing is Spider-Man. Oh, Spider-Man in the 90s…

I actually remember going to the bookstore and seeing part 2 of Maximum Carnage and being totally enthralled. I barely knew what was going on, but they hooked me. I had to read them all.

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I was totally completist, reading all 14 chapters at full price as they came out. No hunting for back issues, it was the first time I experienced the rush of going to the comic store on Wednesday to read the latest installment.

There sure were a lot of Spider-Man comics back then. Web of, Amazing, Spectacular, Unlimited

I didn’t even understand all those characters, Iron Fist and Deathlok as well as Venom and Carnage. But I liked sensing more to the story.

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Met my best friend in the middle school cafeteria, when we noticed each other reading Spider-Man comics

Later in the 90s, Spider-Man would be haunted by the endlessly-complicated clone saga. It got less fun. Too convoluted for its own sake, and even the most diehard fans had enough.

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No wonder the franchise was eventually rebooted.

There were some actual good comics in the early 90s. Peter David’s Hulk comes to mind. Although it kept changing tone – Peter David is a great writer but he seems to make it up as he goes along – I jumped in during the Pantheon era. Fun stories like Rick Jones’ wedding, with superheroes in suits!

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A better recommendation for Hulks to read might be the awesome Future Imperfect:

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Meanwhile, in another corner of the Marvel Universe there was Ghost Rider.

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I remember a whole “Spirits of Vengeance” thing with spinoffs galore. It was no Vertigo, but I ate it up as superhero-friendly horror. Morbius the Living Vampire and whatnot. Y’know, there wouldn’t have been a Blade movie if not for those.

Speaking of movies, my original Guardians of the Galaxy was not of that blockbuster movie. The Guardians were a superteam from the 30th century, and only in the last few years did Marvel create a contemporary outer space team of misfits. Anyway, the 30th century version got their own series in the 90s. I always liked that cosmic, Silver Surfer stuff. It was obscure, not a big seller, but I enjoyed the world-building very much.

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Speaking of more obscure, the New Warriors. Where Mark Bagley, famed artist of Spider-Man, got his big break. Written by X-Men 90s scribe Fabian Nicieza, the team consisted of Marvel rejects in limbo who could be thrown together. Nova, Speedball, Firestar, some positive diverse characters thrown in for good measure; nothing else to do with them so why not make a new group? I recall it was pretty good. I like team book dynamics. The comics themselves I didn’t actually collect, they belonged to my best friend (mentioned above, the Spidey fan) and I read them all. Ah, bonding.

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That said, it’s about time I talk about actual good comics. Like, comics with heart that embrace the superhero genre but are a bit more intelligent. Comics for grownups, nostalgic they may be, but for grownups nonetheless. There wasn’t much of that at Marvel in the mid-90s, but some arose.

The great Mark Waid, very esteemed writer, had began to write for Marvel after leaving DC’s Flash and took up Captain America with Ron Garney. It was mighty good stuff.

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And then Marvel had to go and fuck with that.

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