Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two

Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-391-2

Here’s another collection of tales tracing the Man of Steel’s history and development, this time seemingly concentrating on character rather than physical achievement. First off is the much-reprinted, but always glorious, The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk (which was later Anglicised to Mxyzptlk, presumably to make it easier to spell) from Superman #30 (1944). Jerry Siegel and artist Ira Yarbrough created a cornerstone of the Superman myth with this screwball other-dimensional pixie, against whom all Superman’s strength and power are useless. From then on brains were going to be as important as brawn as they introduced frustration as the Big Guy’s first real weakness.

By the mid-1950s Superman had settled into an ordered existence. Nothing could really hurt him, nothing would ever change, and thrills seemed in short supply. With the TV show cementing the action, writers increasingly concentrated on supplying wonder instead. Superman’s Other Life by Otto Binder, Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye (Superman #132, 1959) shows what might have happened if Superman had grown up on an unexploded Krypton, courtesy of Batman and the projections of a super-computer.

Superman’s Return to Krypton (Superman #141, 1960) by Siegel, Boring and Kaye shoots successfully for Grand Tragedy as Kal-El is trapped in the past on his doomed home-world. Reconciled to dying there, he finds love with his ideal soul-mate, only to be torn from her side and returned to Earth against his will. This tale was a fan favourite for decades thereafter, and it’s truly deserving of a place in this volume, as is The Team of Luthor and Brainiac (Superman #167, 1964), a kid’s dream of an adventure by Edmond Hamilton (from a Cary Bates plot), Curt Swan and George Klein – possibly the most effective art team ever to work on the Man of Steel.

When Julie Schwartz took over the editorial duties, he decided to shake things up — with spectacular results. Superman Breaks Loose (Superman #233, 1971) by Denny O’Neil, Swan and Murphy Anderson, revitalised the Man of Tomorrow and began a period of superb stories that made him a ‘must-buy’ character all over again.

The Legend from Earth-Prime (Superman #400, 1984) is a clever little pastiche by Elliot S. Maggin and Frank Miller, and The Secret Revealed by John Byrne and Terry Austin comes from the second issue of the remodelled, Post-Crisis, Superman (1987), and reveals just how differently the new Luthor thinks and works. Following that is Life after Death (Adventures of Superman #500, 1993), by Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett and Doug Hazlewood, the concluding episode of the infamous Death of Superman story-arc.

After a pin-up by Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens the volume concludes, symmetrically, with a recent, and absolutely hilarious, Mxyzptlk tale from Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark and Andy Lanning (Adventures of Superman #638, 2005).

Every generation has its own favourite Superman. This selection has the potential to make a fan reconsider just which one that might be. It’s probably wiser to just love them all.

© 1944, 1959, 1960, 1964, 1971, 1984, 1987, 1993, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Trailers

Trailers 

By Mark Kneece & Julie Collins-Rousseau

(NBM/Comics Lit)  ISBN 1-561636-445-X

Josh Clayton is a good kid, pretty much. Sure, he lives in a trailer park, and, yes, his mother’s a bit of a tramp, but Josh has never been in any kind of real trouble…

Back from school, Josh is stuck tending to his baby brother again when Ma gets into another screaming match with her drug-dealer boyfriend. This time it doesn’t play out as usual though, and she kills him. When she comes out of the bedroom and tells Josh that he’s got to get rid of the body before his other brother and sister return, his life changes forever.

It’s hard enough being a sensitive teenager in America these days, especially if you’re dirt-poor. High-school is hell and life generally sucks. If you add to that the fact that the body just won’t stay buried, it all adds up to a miserable time for Josh. So when pretty Michele makes a play for him the pressure and confusion reaches fever pitch. And still his inevitable slide into a life just like his mother’s seems to suck him further and further down. Can Josh keep his family together, get the girl, survive school and ever sleep without screaming? Can he break out of this grim, dark spiral, or is he fore-doomed and fore-damned?

The answer makes for a superb slice of modern fiction that should tickle the palate of all those ‘mature’ comic fans in need of more than just a flash of nipple and sprinkle of salty language in their reading matter. Neece and Collins-Rousseau (employed at the faculty of Sequential Art, Savannah College of Art & Design), have created a real story of realistic young people in extraordinary need. This is the kind of book fans need to show civilians who don’t “get” comics. Sit them down, put “Born to Run” on the headphones and let them see what it can be all about.

© 2005 Mark Kneece & Julie Collins-Rousseau. All Rights Reserved

Los Tejanos

Los Tejanos

By Jack Jackson

(Fantagraphics Books)  No ISBN

Known as ‘Jaxon’ in his underground comix days, Jack Jackson’s infectious fascination with the history of Texas was seeping through into all his work even from those early days. Portions of Los Tejanos appeared as the comic books Recuerden el Alamo and Tejano Exile (published by Last Gasp) in the mid 1970s, which the author fleshed out for this early prototype of the Graphic Novel.

Drawn in a captivating, etching-like, cross-hatched style that simply screams ‘true story,’ Los Tejanos provides an absolute wealth of information, social texture and sheer entertainment. It tells the story of Juan Nepomuceno Seguin, a “Texian” of Mexican birth who sided with the rebels fighting for independence. Before becoming part of the United States of America, Texas was briefly a nation unto itself, having won its freedom from a Mexican empire that was bloated, corrupt and in decline. How Seguin turned his back on one culture, only to be eventually betrayed by the other during that period when Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures battled for hegemony in continental America seems to echo even now with relevance. That battle still isn’t over.

The eventual fate of Juan N Seguin makes for powerful reading, rich in fact, well-paced as narrative, and even delivering the occasional solid horse-laugh. But the true measure of a history book, and this most wonderful tome is certainly that, is how the material impacts on the contemporary. Here it also succeeds. The issues were germane in 1840, they were just as much so in 1982, and they still are now.

Why this epic isn’t required reading for every US history or sociology course I’ll never understand.

©1982 Jack Jackson. All Rights Reserved.

Kid Eternity

Kid Eternity

By Grant Morrison & Duncan Fegredo

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-239-8

British writer Grant Morrison’s jump to the US big time was facilitated by way of this retro-fitting of the venerable Golden-Age character first published by Quality Comics in 1942 (Hit Comics #25). In his original outing the Kid was a young boy machine-gunned by Nazis and taken to the heavenly realm of Eternity by a hapless soul collector years before his actual due date. Unable to simply return, he was given the ability to temporarily walk the Earth, along with permission to summon any person, myth or legend that has ever existed. Thus armed, and aided by the bumbling and beneficent spirit Mr. Keeper, the Kid fought crime and injustice until all the really good Golden-Age comic-books were cancelled.

Working on the tried and trusty “everything you know is wrong” principle of modern comic scripting, this revival reveals that was all a lie and sinister forces have been secretly at work all this time. Escaping from Hell, where he has been imprisoned for decades, Kid Eternity teams up with third-rate stand-up comedian Jerry Sullivan. As magical chaos and bloodletting begin to devastate the world they return to the Inferno to rescue Mr Keeper, only to discover the truth behind the Kid’s death and subsequent career, and their part in a cosmic plot to alter the nature of reality.

Full of flash and dazzle, Morrison’s own signature pantheon of multi-dimensional higher beings and visceral-magic entities and metaphysical un-realpolitik, bombast their way through this rather weak tale of revenge and deception, although the complex, full colour art of Duncan Fegredo is compelling throughout and occasionally spell-binding. This miniseries spawned a short lived revival of the character: one of the Vertigo imprint’s first forays into periodical publishing after hiving off from the regular DC Universe.

© 1991, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

GREEN LANTERN: FEAR ITSELF

Green Lantern: Fear Itself 

By Ron Marz & Brad Parker

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-56389-310-X

Comics has a rich history of successful character redesigns, and probably none more so than Green Lantern, whose backstory has now become the very fabric of the DC Universe. Therefore an epic tale featuring three generations of Emerald Crusader would seem like a fan’s dream come true.

At the beginning of World War II a team of Nazi occultists break in to a Washington DC museum and release a C’thulu-like monster. After a rampage where it defeats the mighty Justice Society by afflicting them with their deepest fears, only Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, can throw off its attack and ‘destroy’ it.

During the height of the Cold War, test pilot and Green Lantern Hal Jordan thwarts a KGB attempt to retrieve the monster’s remains and inadvertently reactivates it himself. Although aided by the Justice League of America, it ultimately falls to Jordan himself to defeat the beast.

Kyle Rayner is (at this time at least) the last Green Lantern. A freelance artist and a more introspective type of hero, it’s up to him to find a final solution when the fear-monster returns for a last assault upon humanity.

This is not a particularly unique story, but the decision to use a computer-illustrator for the artwork did make it note-worthy at the time. To what degree that was a good decision is largely a matter of personal taste, but I suspect that this is a book that will only appeal to die-hard fans.

© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Secrets

Batman: Secrets

By Sam Kieth

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-425-0

Fan favourite Sam Kieth returns to the caped crusader for an exploration of media tactics and exploitation in this dark, daft and slightly overblown psycho-drama. Somehow the Joker has convinced a parole–board to release him (and no, there’s no explanation as to how such a body can rule on someone under psychiatric detention, so just let it go) and is doing the chat show rounds, plugging his new book.

He hasn’t actually reformed though: Having seduced and enthralled the truly disturbed assistant D.A. handling his case, Joker plans more mischief — beginning with the murder of her boss. When Batman intervenes, two bystanders photograph the fight and a picture that seems to show our hero torturing the villain gets picked up by all the news services.

This is the spark for a media-storm as the jackals of the fourth estate smell a scoop. One of the news-barons, a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne (they share a bloody youthful secret), is blackmailed by the Joker to lead a witch-hunt to harass Batman whilst the mad clown fuels the media frenzy with fraud and slaughter in semi-successful attempts to frame the Dark Knight.

Batman must conquer his own secret past, save lives, and turn the tables on his manic foe’s most insidious scheme under the corrupt glare of a biased media that no longer has the will to assess or the time to judge the facts and actions it purports to report…

This is an oddly dissatisfying concoction. Kieth is a talented creator, and has some good points to make regarding the “if it bleeds, it leads, one picture is worth a thousand thoughts” mentality behind modern news-gathering. He should also be admired for attempting a slightly different style of story, but hasn’t quite pulled it off here. There are plot holes you could drive the Batmobile through, far too many manic head shots and too few backgrounds, establishing shots or even mid-, medium- and full-body long-shots. Visually, it’s as if he’s fallen for the very philosophical and aesthetic trap he decries in newsmen. Is a dramatic picture more worthy than context or narrative? You decide, obviously, but I’ll stick to style AND substance, if you don’t mind.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Star Trek: The Trial of James T. Kirk

Star Trek: The Trial of James T. Kirk

By Peter David, James W. Fry & Gordon Purcell

(Titan Books) ISBN 1-94576- 315-7

This edition of Titan’s Star Trek series of graphic novels collects issues #7-12 of the DC comics series from the 1990s. Here the creators try for tense rather than action packed, with a tale of political intrigue as a coalition of alien races (the Klingons and an uncomfortably Iranian-esque fundamentalist species called Nasguls) attempt to have Captain Kirk thrown into prison.

Things come to a head when the price on the Captain’s head leads the universe’s greatest bounty-hunter to attempt his capture — almost destroying the Enterprise in the process. Kirk voluntarily surrenders himself to end the constant disruption and naturally pulls a stunt that turns all those stacked tables against his foes. This stuff is pure classic Trek. The fans loved it then and will now. It’s also a very good example of how to do a licensed property in comic form and readers and wannabe creators should buy and take note.

™ & © 2006 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sgt Rock: Between Hell & a Hard Place

Sgt Rock: Between Hell & a Hard Place

By Joe Kubert & Brian Azzarello

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-4012-0054-0

Sgt Rock and Easy Company are some of the great and enduring creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of the late Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old.

Most closely associated with these characters today is legendary creator Joe Kubert, who has worked as artist, writer, editor and educator since the earliest days of the medium. So when a new Rock edition was announced, the artist was never in doubt, and Brian Azzarello was one of a vanishingly small pool of potential scripters. Their collaboration has produced a powerful, if simplistic, morality play about the nature of killing. And, most importantly, it’s a damn fine read.

War is hell, but the death is somehow justifiable if your country tells you to. So how does a moral man, a soldier, react when the killing moves beyond the acceptable parameters laid down by his superiors? When Rock and Co capture four enemy officers after a frantic battle, the Nazis are taken prisoner and treated under the Articles of War. The next morning three are dead and the fourth is missing. The Germans have all been executed at close range whilst confined.

Immediately a cloud of suspicion descends on the previously close-knit unit of G.I.s. Was it the missing prisoner, or is one of their own capable of the kind of atrocity they’re all fighting to end? And even so, don’t these monsters possibly deserve it? Rock must find all the answers. Not simply to restore his faith and trust, but because it’s the right thing to do.

As much detective mystery as war story, this is a searching and haunting re-examination of the most telling quandary of conflict. Why is dealing death right sometimes and not others? I can’t promise you answers, but the questions have seldom been asked in as striking or beautiful a manner.

© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Crisis of Conscience

JLA: Crisis of Conscience

By Geoff Johns, Allan Heinberg, Chris Batista & Mark Farmer

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-279-7

Following on from the events of Identity Crisis, which revealed that some members of the JLA used inhumane, if not illegal, mind altering methods on their defeated foes, the once heroic team was divided and in turmoil. Not only had the erring heroes monkeyed with the villains’ minds, they had also tinkered with the brains of fellow heroes who objected to the measure.

Now those guilt-racked heroes are reaping the consequences as the villains return, with restored faculties and murderous intent, seeking their own kind of justice. So do Batman and Catwoman, who now also know what was done to them. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason has all but destroyed the League, and now they face destruction for their mistake. And who hates them enough, and is powerful enough, to have restored those doctored memories in the first place?

Although convoluted and a little histrionic in places, there’s still plenty of action and intrigue for super-hero lovers to enjoy here, but casual readers might be well advised to re-read Identity Crisis first.

This story first appeared in the monthly JLA comic, issues #115-119.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.