Monday, November 3, 2008

5 Best Comic Book Series I'm Reading at the Moment

1. Promethea (1st time, about 12 issues in): I read the first issues of all of the original ABC books, but Top Ten was the only one that hooked me in. I eventually caught up with all of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (except for The Black Dossier) and a lot of Tom Strong and Tomorrow Stories, but kept putting off reading Promethea. I decided to give it another chance because (a) the series is praised to high heaven by the likes of Jog and (b) the TPB collections are available at the library.

So far, I think it's pretty great and I'd like to say that I'm not sure what I was thinking when I decided way-back-when that it wasn't for me, except that I remember almost exactly what I was thinking: that turning into a super-hero by composing and writing a poem was an extremely lame idea. That's really the only bit that stuck with me, though: I had completely forgotten all the pulp sci-fi trappings - no memories of the Five Swell Guys, for instance - and the book's sense of humor - like the stuff about the MPD mayor).

While a lot of this reads like a lecture, what makes it work, IMO, is that Moore and J.H. Williams III make the lecture work as comics. If I have one complaint it's that in a TPB collection it's harder to read some of the two-page spreads: they really need to be laid flat to be properly appreciated.

2. All-Star Squadron (re-reading, 3 issues in): I don't know if this is my favorite Roy Thomas comic, but it is the first "favorite Roy Thomas" comic I ever had.

I really like that it isn't decompressed! I know it has become pretty common for old-school comics fans to complain about the lack of story/plot in newer super-hero comics, but it wasn't until I started re-reading this series that I realized my problem with decompression wasn't just that it spreads out 22 pages worth of story over six issues - I now think it also leads to lazier comics. I mean, in All-Star Squadron you have a large team of super-heroes, you have big fight scenes, and you have a fair amount of exposition/backstory/positioning to get across. But because you don't have all the space in the world, the individual panels take on a lot more weight. It becomes much more important to get as much expressiveness out of each panel as possible, while still avoiding having the compositions becoming too cluttered, muddied, or incomprehensible. It can be refreshing for creators to work without restraints, but I think "compression" was one of those constraints that spurred creativity rather than reigned it in.

I also like Roy Thomas' project here, in general. Talk about working within constraints: I can't think of anything else quite like this, except for Don Rosa's Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck comics. Rosa's work is an interesting comparison, IMO, because the Barks work Rosa is drawing from is among the greatest American comics ever made, while Thomas is working with far more uneven source material. In a sense, this puts All-Star Squadron in the better position vis a vis its "original" than Life and Times: Rosa's work ends up being a footnote - albeit a beautifully done footnote - to Barks', while All-Star Squadron is interesting and worthwhile for completely different reasons than the original Justice Society stories in All-Star Comics. The pleasure of those stories for me is in their anarchic, anything goes nature and primitive, circus-spectacle art. The pleasure of All-Star Squadron is in (a) watching Thomas put his stories together like a "negative" puzzle - i.e. he has to try to fit things in to the empty narrative spaces left by the original comics and (b) how Thomas more consciously weaves real world WWII-era history into the fiction.

3. Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan's The Question (re-reading, 3 issues in): Inspired by 52, I went back to these comics. Would it surprise anyone here if I said I think they're much better than anything done with the character in 52? For one thing, O'Neil doesn't write him just like another masked vigilante. O'Neil walks the tightrope of giving the character a distinct personality without having it turn into (merely) a unique shtick. I like O'Neil's approach in general: he has genuine old-school pulp roots, which sets him apart, IMO, from a lot of the other guys writing super-hero books. (I'd like to do a longer compare/contrast essay on this series vs. Miller's Daredevil, which makes use of a lot of the same pulp tropes but uses them in a more superficial manner).

4. The Walking Dead (1st time, 13 issues in): Good stuff! Not sure why I waited so long to read these comics, but I'm glad I now have a bunch of them to read all at once. I eventually would like to write a longer, essay-style appreciation, that would talk about (among other things) the importance of the various places in which the survivors take refuge and how I think Kirkman (and his collaborators) are thinking like classical Hollywood filmmakers in this regard.

5. The Boys (1st time, 13 or so issues in): Okay, so it isn't as good as Brat Pack. It isn't as good as Ennis' various Punisher comics. I haven't read enough Transmetropolitan to know if it's not as good as that. And I don't even think Robertson's work is as good here as it was on his Wolverine run. Still - I think this comic has something that a lot of the other nudge-nudge, wink-wink "takes"on super-hero comics don't, which is a raunchy, nasty spirit and a refusal to play both sides of the fence. I.e. there isn't much in the way of "traditional super-hero comics pleasures" here, as opposed to something like Nextwave or X-Static. (And, so far at least, the jokes don't revolve around how goofy various super-hero tropes seem if you think about them in "real world" terms). This is last on this list for a reason: I'm less sure of this one, both in terms of being less sure I'll be sticking around for the long haul and less sure that I won't look back on even these issues less fondly in a year from now. But right now this is (a) a nice corrective to the "straight" super-hero stuff I'm reading (I wish the Boys would pay a visit to Bendis' New Avengers) and (b) a nice way to get a regular Garth Ennis fix.


Mark said...

I've been interested in O'Neil's run on The Question, and I think Denys Cowan is an under rated artistic genius. I feel somewhat averse to O'Neil's more lefty take on a "libertarian" superhero, but I wouldn't rule out reading it - I love Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man, and it would edge out Watchmen in my estimation as the best, most adult, revamp of a silver age superhero. Just how good is it? Would it be worth making a bid on eBay for a set?

Jon Hastings said...

Unless they're going for some ridiculous price on E-Bay, I'd say they're worth it. Especially if you're a Denys Cowan fan already. I'm more sympathetic to libertarianism now than when I first read these comics, so I'm interested to see what my take on the politics will be now.

I don't like it as much as Animal Man, but Animal Man is my favorite post-1980 super-hero book (except maybe for Ambush Bug).

Nik said...

I'd love to see some big "Showcase Presents All-Star Squadron" collection, I had fond memories of that series.