The New Boy Wonders – Establishing Robin in a world without Batman

we-are-robin1

I don’t envy writers who have to try to separate Robin from Batman. From his very first appearances in the 1940s, Robin’s relationship with Batman has always been characterized as one of a father and his sons. Even under the best of circumstances, separating a Robin from the Caped Crusader, leaves a character in the shadow of the more known hero. The most successful reestablishments of Robin without Batman usually dramatically alter the status quo and forcibly separate the two characters. The recent Grayson did a fantastic job turning former-Robin-turned-Nightwing-turned-Batman-turned-Nightwing-turned-spy Dick Grayson into a character on his own, in over his head and having to depend on his own strengths to deal with unique character-specific challenges, much like how the successful Chuck Dixon Nightwing relaunch relocated Dick into a crime-infested Bludhaven.

The post-Endgame status quo gives DC an open palate to put a new spin on Robin by taking the Batman readers have known for decades off the table. With the world believing Batman has died in a final battle with the Joker, the very idea of Robin can be given an entirely different characterization. Robin’s not a son anymore. He’s a standard-bearer and DC’s two new Robin-centric titles give very different interpretations on what carrying a legacy means.

Robin-Son-of-Batman-1-preview-mau3rxo927v6wx9v1ta1701inh5gphtn75goxfsvl4

Patrick Gleason’s Robin: Son of Batman is the most straight forward approach but it’s one that also doesn’t directly address the absence of Batman. After his resurrection, Damian Wayne is taking a new look at his life. He’s continuously confronted by death and he’s no longer able to shove down his guilt and regret over his own bloody past. It’s a natural growth for the character. In the Peter Tomasi run on Batman and Robin, Damian slowly came to terms with his tortured, traumatic past by seeing the future his father was trying to build. With the tragic end of Batman Incorporated, Grant Morrison showed Damian’s final turn away from Ra’s and Talia’s plans for him and embrace of his father’s path and this issue’s focus on Damian’s guilt and rejection of the League of Assassin’s tenants is a clear way to pick up what that story established.

Robin: Son of Batman #1 puts Damian on a Herculean quest. He’s writing the wrongs of his past, trying to clean up the years of spilled blood, trying to do his best to honor both his father as well as his surrogate father, Dick Grayson. Gleason sells the hell out of Damian’s guilt and uncertainty in a wonderful, haunting nightmare sequence where the child continuously is forced to relive his guilt and his own death and when he finally chooses to begin a year of atonement, it feels earned, like Damian is doing more than just choosing to follow in his father’s shadow. He’s creating a new path.

tumblr_np2kiuamtG1tf70vho1_1280

We are Robin #1 is a more ambitious approach to the relationship between Batman and Robin and more directly addresses a Gotham City without Bruce Wayne as Batman. The issue centers around Duke Thomas, a minor character who has appeared twice in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, whose parents disappeared following one particularly traumatic scene in Batman #37, which echoed Batman’s origin. Since then, Duke has bounced around Gotham orphanages, searching for his family and increasingly depending on himself over all others. Lee Bermejo gives Thomas’s dialogue and running internal monologue an endearing nerdiness and Jorge Corona infuses the issue’s action sequences with a nervy, confident style that brings readers directly into its protagonist’s head. He’s a relatable hero, trying to do his best but still making the wrong choice as often as he makes the right one.

Duke’s characterized throughout We are Robin #1 with elements reminiscent of almost all of the former Robins. His acrobatic combat during a schoolyard bout recall the graceful dangerous dance of Dick Grayson, his over-confident defiance of authority bears more than a little resemblance to Jason Todd and there are peaks of what made Tim Drake such a memorable sidekick. What most establishes Duke’s place in the issue, however, is his connection to Batman. When the mysterious new Robins arrive on the scene at issue’s end, they’re not interested in what Duke is capable of or what he’s been through. They just know he’s “hung with the bat” and that’s all he needs to get in.

we-are-robin-interview-header-139439

We are Robin establishes less than Robin: Son of Batman does but it does so in a particularly engaging way. Much like how Gotham Academy took its time to establish the mysteries around Olive Silvermane, the issue doesn’t answer much about the nature of the new Robins but their presence speaks volumes. In a story haunted by the Joker’s actions during Endgame, the establishment of a group of teens keeping Batman’s memory alive is a wonderful homage to ideas like online activism and inspiration through sacrifice. It’s a smart, thoughtful way to connect Bruce’s final fateful actions in Batman #40 to the new status quo.

We are Robin and Robin: Son of Batman both highlight what I love best about one of my favorite concepts in comics. Both boldly showcase the way Batman can change the future through inspiration, how he can prevent the next child from losing everything to one terrible day. More importantly though, both establish characters separate from a greater hero, giving writers and readers a whole new perspective on Gotham and its young protectors in a bold, exciting new world.

Action Comics #41 limits the scale but keeps Superman’s heart

STK672313-br

For decades, one of the defining characteristics of Superman has been tying the scope of his powers to the characters’ personal philosophy. Superman would do anything for anyone so he can. Since John Byrne’s relaunch of the character post Infinite Crisis, writers have experimented with how changes to Superman’s power or his views of his abilities impact the character’s perspective and actions. Dividing Superman in the ill-considered Red/Blue era did little to add to the formula. J. Michael Straczynski’s attempt at turning Clark Kent into a self-loathing young-adult, terrified of his capabilities in the Superman: Earth One series dramatically altered the way Superman interacted with other characters and the world, pushing him away from the supporting cast of Lois and Jimmy to a heroin junky neighbor and the love-interest-turned-hooker, to, at best, mixed results. 

1416_action_30_splash

It’d be easy to say that Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder are engaging in similar transgressions in Action Comics #41 but there’s more going on behind the scenes and in the book’s subtext. Following an ill-defined event (we’ll get to it later), Superman has been outed as Clark Kent and forced on the run, both from Metropolis and the Fortress of Solitude. By issue’s end, he’s returning to his familiar haunts and to residents that have a much different view of who Superman is and what his role is. Unlike the aforementioned changes to Superman’s powers, however, Pak and Kuder aren’t using the new status quo or the public’s new reaction to it to change who Clark Kent fundamentally is, just limiting what he can physically do when he’s called to action.

Since Pak and Kuder took over Action Comics, they’ve focused on how Superman’s powers can totally corrupt anyone without Superman’s moral fortitude. In the fantastic Subterrania arc, Clark and Lana’s interactions with a kingdom of powerful monsters and ghost assassins reveal the personal difficulties Superman faces every time he throws a punch. In the Doomed arc, as Clark struggles against his own internalized rage and desire to put other’s needs above his own, he sees the damage he can wreck when he punches down at those below him. So far, Superman has always been in a position of overwhelming power over those he’s come into conflict with. It’s interesting, in that context, for Pak and Kuder to now put him in a situation where Clark is consistently outmatched. In the book’s opening fight scene, a group of roughnecks attack Clark outside a gas station. He’s having to fight back in dire situation in a context that recalls the character’s earliest incarnations.

1281038427778743842

Kuder’s deliberately aping Bronze Age Superman throughout Action Comics #41, from returning to a facsimile of the original logo, to showing Clark leaping tall buildings and coming into conflict with corrupt authority figures in the form of a sneering police officer. This is the most populist Superman has been in years and Pak does a good job showing the way Superman’s appeal to his neighbors isn’t universal. There’s still very real fear and discomfort around him but little notes like the way Clark provides a role model for kids and rushes to help those in need show a character who isn’t afraid to put his life on the line, regardless of his diminished powers.

There are some problems still and it’s hard to find where to lay the blame. The issue continuously references books that have not been released yet to explain Clark’s new status quo, with one of the books not set to for release for another month. It gives the distinct impression that we’re walking into a series in the middle of a storyline, not  the new-reader friendly jumping-on point DC seems to want it to be. It’s probably best to see Action Comics #41 not as a bold new status quo for Superman but as a natural continuation of Pak and Kuder’s ongoing fascination with the power and responsibility that’s become their calling card on this run. With Superman’s new abilities established for the time being, the team isn’t limiting the character, just his scope and the results are bound to be interesting.

There’s more fucking than fighting in Midnighter #1 and that’s a very good thing

midnighter-brpng-b61176_1280w

Post Convergence, DC stands at an impasse similar to one they stood at in August, 2011. The publisher once again has the option to relaunch old titles and start new ones, correct the state of their recently tangled continuity, present characters in a new, fresh way and tell stories they haven’t been able to in years. This time, however, much of that correcting is mistakes made from their last relaunch.

Few properties suffered under the banner of the New 52 more than the acquired Wildstorm characters. Once champions of the ’90s creator-owned, anything-goes-as-long-as-it sells-aesthetic, characters from Stormwatch, The Authority and WildCats were left under a more controlled, less open publishing initiative where everything needed to work together. While there were successes, few characters and concepts suffered more than Apollo and Midnighter. The pair were forced into Stormwatch, arguably the least successful New 52 book because it was the least essential. In the New 52, a super brutal team watching the events of the world didn’t need to exist; it already existed in Geoff Johns’ inexplicably violent Justice League. As such, the pair were treated as little more than the Batman and Superman pastiches they were originally meant to parody and the role suited neither of them.

Stormwatch 1

The newest Midnighter series from writer Steve Orlando and artist ACO has a chance to show what makes Midnighter so much different than the character he was meant to pay homage to. Orlando takes the opportunity by taking Midnighter out of every comfort zone he has. He’s far away, physically and emotionally, from his ex and the manipulative Gardener and he’s trying to enjoy being a not-quite-hero as well as an out and on the prowl gay man.

You see, that’s the biggest risk Orlando takes in this issue and ACO sells that risk through bold, extremely modern choices. After an in media res opening, we see Midnighter’s Grindr profile and him on a date with the curious Jason. While he doesn’t appear in the issue, Apollo hangs over the book and clearly, the protagonist’s thoughts, but Orlando knows the value of keeping the character off the table. In a recent Comics Alliance interview, he spoke of the representative power of presenting Midnighter without his partner saying, “Often gay males are shown in mainstream media, but they’re coupled, they’re safe and chastened. And for a while, that alone was bold because gay men could be shown in mainstream media at all. But now that’s primetime family television.”

While allowing Midnighter to exist on his own, without Apollo and a support system puts the character in a new situation worthy of a debut issue, it’s the emotional move that’s more powerful. Midnighter is on his own, confident and on the hunt. He’s defending what’s his but he’s also looking for what he can have for the first time in a long time. When he and Jason have sex near the issue’s conclusion, there’s a real sense of the mix of desperation and desire that makes up the wild courtship this book is trying to sell.

screenshot_2015-05-06-23-02-362

Where the emotions are wild and dangerous, ACO portrays the violence in Midnighter #1 as an exercise of practiced control. Both in the new issue and the 8-page preview DC released last month, ACO uses loaded, energetic panels as a way to put us in the protagonist’s head. Midnighter’s computer brain is constantly calculating options and the Andrea Sorrentino-esque layouts give readers the same sort of clear-cut, razor-precise framework we need to get inside Midnighter’s head as he deals with bounty hunters and a threat against his very identity at the issue’s conclusion.

More than anything, the comparison between precise violence and wild, passionate sex provides a mission statement for the book. The most dangerous, unpredictable thing Midnighter is going to face is going to be at the dinner table and in the bedroom, not on the battlefield where he is little-less than a god. As he says over dinner and drinks, Midnighter is always game for some “aggressive anthropology” and I’m ready to see exactly what all that entails, on the streets and in the sheets.

“Please guide me home” – ODY-C #1 is a stunning, beautiful contradiction

tumblr_naplw8nu2D1qlrd4qo6_1280

Since I put ODY-C on my pull list, following the book’s announcement at Image Expo 2013, I’ve moved across the country, started a new job, quit smoking, began a relationship, turned around my opinion on ramen, read somewhere around 1,000 X-Men comics and rewatched “30 Rock” four times. My comic shop owner regularly asked me “Hey, when’s that ODY-C coming out,” and I would dutifully reply that it got pushed back again or that it seemed like Matt Fraction might be abandoning the book as he kept swapping around Marvel projects, backing out of Inhuman and falling behind on Hawkeye. I eventually, almost gave up hope.

But I didn’t and I’m very happy that I did not. ODY-C, written by Fraction and drawn by Christian Ward, is a powerful, self-assured debut from one of comics’ most recognized modern writers and an up and coming artist with a lived-in style. It’s a book that doesn’t feel like it could be created by any other team, in the same way Fraction’s most recent independent, the smash-hit Sex Criminals, felt as if it couldn’t have been made by anyone other than himself and artist Chip Zdarsky. However, where Sex Criminals took the first issue to establish protagonist Suzie’s motivations, back story and unique ability, ODY-C does everything in two pages.

Well, technically 10 pages.

ODY02

Yes, the much vaunted 8-page opening spread is there and it’s glorious but it’s what that spread both shows and doesn’t show which is the real masterstroke of the opening. Before unfurling the spread, The sides hold both a map and a timeline, respectively of the world Odyssia and her crew inhabit. Both have the same impressionistic style Jonathan Hickman popularized in charts and diagrams in The Nightly News, Pax Romana and Secret Wars but they serve dual purposes and those purposes highlight the contrasting worlds ODY-C exists in. While a dry, loose timeline explains the background of Zeus’ actions, the reason for so few men in this world, and the conflict in Troii, it all serves as useful flavor around a shocking, imaginative and gruesome tableau of Odyssia and her companions. It’s a smart move, grounding the physical cost of massive violence against the dispassionate recounting of the bickering and pettiness which leads to it.

That fusion of new-age artistic aesthetic and Western canon is what provides some of the more intriguing moments of ODY-C as well. After the ship takes off to bring its crew of warriors home, we visit the Gods, a seemingly powerful family of conspirators and battling factions all watching the actions of Odyssia from on high. While the issue up to this point, has held all of the action unobtrusively in narration, the shift to word bubblers when the gods appear is jarring and an interesting touch, certainly open to interpretation. Is letterer Chris Eliopoulos attempting to show a difference between the controlled, set as legend story of Odyssia with the more emotion based tales of the Gods? Are we meant to view the Gods as more traditional characters while the soldiers are more untouchable by the comics medium? Are the characters and tropes permanent even when placed them in an unfamiliar medium, while the gods wholely inhabit where they are?

tumblr_nd6wao4No51rk5n91o1_500

To his credit, Fraction doesn’t offer many answers in the first issue but there’s lots of room for debate. So it goes throughout the story, where each of Fraction and Ward’s choices are meant to accentuate both the power of Homer’s original text as well as the new subtext a few changes can bring to these tales. Nowhere is this clearer than in the death of Xylot. While The Odyssey contains many passages referencing Odysseus’ loyalty to his crew as well as the violence he is capable of, the shift to Odyssia’s crew, more in tune with one another and in desperate need of cooperation makes her choice to kill a crew member feel different. She’s no less of a hero and no less worthy of a character than Odysseus when she damns Xylot to the cold reaches of space but it’s a moment that requires the reader to ask something of themselves. Just who is this captain who makes these sacrifices? What is waiting for her back home and is she deserving of taking it upon her return? Reframing these questions, which have formed the backbone of so much of Western fiction as we know it, is the key success of ODY-C #1 and create a strong start for the sure to be long journey to come.

“I like not knowing” – Looking back at 20 years of Hellboy

pIt’s incredibly difficult to say what exactly made Mike Mignola’s Hellboy such a breakout success when the character first appeared 20 years ago today. In those early appearances, whether in the first issues of the “Seed of Destruction” story arc and in the earlier appearances, it’s the little moments which define the character but there’s so much to unpack, so much richness that it’s somewhat unsurprising to see the character become such a multimedia phenomenon.

Much of the success of Hellboy as a character and as a media franchise are in the details. Physically, there’s no character that looks like him. Hellboy pops off the page, alternatively lithe and burly, with a distinctive color scheme often used in contrast with washed out backgrounds. He’s alien and the other, even moreso than the other bizarre characters in the series. Mignola never shied away from giving these characters a sense of place as well, through consistent visual characterization, such as the otherness of the aquatic Abe Sapien to the mentally and physically scarred Liz Sherman.

Rasputin-HarpoonedWhen Hellboy began appearing on comic shop shelves in the early ’90s, its art style set it so far apart from its competition for good reason. Mignola’s work is heavily inspired by Jack Kirby, the hard chins, defined features and taste for outre alien creatures with inhuman details. It’s a style which has inspired legions, from David Aja’s minimalist designs which character specific details to Francesco Francavilla’s moody and evocative renderings of altered worlds and larger than life personalities.

Part of what made the Hellboy franchise so appealing from the very beginning was an authorial voice that was as distinctive as the art. In a series full of Nazi occultists, soul crushing deals and a consistent, creeping sense of doom, Mignola’s characters are often charming and even funny. Hellboy quips like Spider-Man while smashing like Hulk and the intersection between fairy tales, Lovecraftian horror and good old fashioned dime-store pulp often creates situations which are ripe for a couple of cutting quips. Hellboy-The-Corpse-and-the-Iron-Shoes-01-1996-06The key to the franchise and really the key to any piece of media is the way Hellboy had a true sense of history, even from right out of the gate. From Rasputin’s rebirth in the early part of the century to Hellboy’s summoning in 1944 to constant references to past adventures readers weren’t always privy to, this was a series that felt like it was going on before readers found their way there and one that felt like it was still going to continue to exist after they left. The mysteries of the series, from Hellboy’s lineage and role in the future to Abe’s past and the various adventures and secrets hidden throughout the world, never felt like a gimmick or something reader were waiting to learn about it. It always seemed as if the clues were there, as if someone knew the arcane horrible truths but dared not speak them. It’s an exciting, powerful sort of world-building that’s still rare to see, even in creator owned books.

In an interview with USA Today, Mignola said his goal with Hellboy was just to do an occult detective series, something he’d wanted to do without the trappings of an established universe. What came out of that was so much more and looking back, it’s amazing to see the way the entire franchise grew and expanded building off of a host of secrets and details, both dangerously arcane and wonderfully mundane.

The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 4

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 10.39.32 PMI know this is (holy shit) three months into 2014 but at long last, here’s the top 20 series of 2013. This was an intensely contested category and I really had to whittle the list down to the very best of the best of the best. Let’s get into it.

The Next Generations – Awarded to the finest series of pictorials of the year.

Runners UpANXMEN2012013_int_LR-2-3
This was tough. All New X-Men somehow overcame a limited premise, several overly complicated story arcs, a tie-in to the underwhelming “Battle of the Atom” and some rickety character work to be a fantastic look at the X-Men through the ages and a reflection on how the series has changed. The Allred family overcame some rocky plotting by Matt Fraction and fixed FF, making it one of Marvel’s most unique and recognizable books on the market. Bringing Rafael Albuquerque onto Animal Man took it from an impressive title to one of DC’s finest off-key horror books and a consistent source of nightmare imagery and heartwarming scenes of characters fighting for what’s important.

Twentieth PlaceBruce-Banner-in-Indestructible-Hulk-2Indestructible Hulk

Mark Waid is a man who can redefine a character. Focusing on Banner, the jealous, hopelessly petty, intrinsically flawed monster underneath another monster is the focus and like in Waid’s Daredevil, he’s a character who finally wants to change his place in the world. While stories like “Agents of TIME” dragged along, Waid positioned Banner and Hulk as separate, albeit linked, characters looking to change, even when the world and the people they surround themselves with aren’t so sure they’re ready.

Nineteenth PlaceuxmUncanny Avengers

Uncanny Avengers isn’t a perfect book. It’s often barely a good one. What makes this story unique is that it’s always bold, always pushing the envelope, always relentlessly putting the characters in the worst possible position and watching them hopelessly crawl back from the brink. It’s a technique Rick Remender perfected on Uncanny X-Force but it’s given new weight in Uncanny Avengers with a team who can’t afford to let its secrets stay locked away. Each issue is an event, a talking point, an upcoming Twitter firestorm and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Eighteenth PlaceScreen-Shot-2013-10-05-at-8.33.07-PMStar Wars

If there’s a better introduction to the Expanded Universe than Brian Wood’s Star Wars, I don’t know what it is. Taking the familiar bits of the canon and slowly bringing in the looser character relationships, motivations and world building, Star Wars is a master class in how to make a licensed book work for diehard fans and newcomers alike. Evocative, recognizable and classically nostalgic, it’s a book that makes a galaxy far far away feel never more reachable.

Seventeenth Placehooded-figure-green-lanternGreen Lantern

After years of guidance and hundreds of issues of wonderfully realized worlds, Geoff Johns handed over the franchise he resurrected in a single issue of Green Lantern. While Robert Venditti has done a commendable job moving the series forward and keeping the book a must-read, Johns’ deliberate, wonderfully realized moments between Hal Jordan and Sinestro in Green Lantern #20 made this book an instant classic and cemented his place in the Corps’ history.

Sixteenth PlaceNova's_lifeNova

Casting off years of complicated backstories and Marvel’s often arcane space baggage paid off by bringing Sam Alexander home in Nova. A wonderfully realized, empathetic and true portrait of growing up young, poor and without much guidance, Sam is the perfect character to try to fight for what he believes is a galaxy worth saving and his attempts to right intergalactic wrongs are touching, bold, attention grabbing and often hilarious. Nova often achieves the impossible, being a well written, fun and passionate book, as well suited for first time readers as Marvel junkies alike.

Fifteenth PlaceScreen Shot 2013-08-23 at 12.41.31 PMWonder Woman

A rare example of a writer and artists’ voices defining a DC character, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s take on Wonder Woman is the boldest book by a traditionally conservative publisher and the results are often stunning. Focusing on Diana’s twisted family dynamics and her attempts at creating a more stable home, Wonder Woman is a deeply human story on the way we reflect and deny the families who define us.

Fourteenth PlacesagaSaga

Last year’s winner, Saga continues to be one of the biggest success stories in independent comics and one of the best examples of the diversity of stories the medium can tell. A “Pulp Fiction”-esque storytelling device brought all the characters together in 2013, letting them bounce off each other and haunt their actions until only love can define them. Saga continues to be an electrifying read and the wait for the next issue is always far too painful.

Thirteenth Placebatman-242Batman

In 2013’s Batman #21, an unmasked Bruce Wayne raises a youthful middle finger to the man who will one day be his archenemy. It’s a defiant wonderful moment but it might as well be Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo flipping off the established canon. “Year Zero” has been a wonderfully realized, exuberant and fresh take on the early days of Batman, both respectful to Frank Miller’s “Year One,” and willing to critique, prod and kill its idols. Snyder’s Batman is everything the New 52 should be: fresh, respectful, modern, hip and unbelievably ready to slash and burn.

Twelfth Placeku-xlargeHawkeye

Matt Fraction and his stable of artists went bigger, more ambitious and infinitely more complicated in their second year of Hawkeye and that’s why it’s on the list but also why it’s not higher up. While the investigation into Gil’s death, Kate’s trip to California and the return of Barney were all great character driven beats, an inconsistent shipping schedule, missed deadlines and switching publication orders left fans wanting more and not in the most friendly way imaginable.

Eleventh Placegg1Guardians of the Galaxy

Brian Michael Bendis skills are all in display in his revamp of Guardians of the Galaxy, his whip smart dialogue, wonderful characterizations, fight choreography and gripping story telling. Like Nova, Bendis built on the past without being enslaved by it and made the Guardians more than just a team of space pirates but a group of heroes like no one else in the Marvel Universe.

Tenth Placeaaron-02Wolverine and the X-Men

What defines the X-Men? Is it their deep history, their very recognizable and personal struggles, their complicated romantic lives or the ongoing stories which define a race and people? Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men takes all of those disparate bits and brings them together into a single cohesive package. Wolverine and the X-Men is the perfect look at why the X-Men work as a franchise and despite some missteps (I don’t think anyone will look back favorably on the Frankenstein’s Murder Circus arc), it’s a stunning, beautiful book, always ready to surprise and remind readers why they’ve invested so much in these characters and this world.

Ninth PlaceAstro-City_1_PanelAstro City

The return of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is more than just the return of a series which redefined comics. It’s the culmination of all the ways the medium has grown and changed since the series went on hiatus in 2009. Astro City is a wonderful reminder of how a deconstruction of  comics can work, not stripping down and destroying the characters and world but celebrating the way the medium works and how people exist within it.

Eighth Placetumblr_mtyn4dOw4m1qj97xmo1_1280Fatale
In the wake of murder and madness at the end of Fatale #10, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had a chance to go bigger and broader with their tale of Jo and the monsters who pursue and they made a splash in a huge way. Going back through the past and ending the year in the ’90s Seattle Grunge scene gave the title the same amount of freedom and energy Jo has found. It’s a book mercilessly in command of the story and characters it slowly unravels, pushing Jo and the Bishop closer and closer together into what is sure to be an Earth shaking conclusion in the final year of Fatale.

Seventh Placenew-avengers4-strangeNew Avengers

One of the masterstrokes of Marvel’s soft relaunch has been the company’s decision to pay attention to the past without being beholden to it. In New Avengers, past relationships haunt a team of Earth’s most brilliant minds and the odds the group is up against weigh heavy on their hearts. While dealing with the extraplanar incursions is the narrative thrust of the series, Jonathan Hickman’s writing is sharpest when delving into the minds and motives of his characters. Black Panther and Namor’s tense declaration of war, Reed Richards tentative, inquisitive interrogations of the unknowable Black Swan and Stephen Strange’s slow descent into a power he doesn’t know if he can control create a perfect mix of internal and external tension. These are characters with a history and presence in the Marvel Universe and by pushing them against a threat they don’t understand and have never faced has let all of what makes them icons shine.

Sixth Placemanhattanproj-13-review-9_copyManhattan Projects

In Manhattan Projects, absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely, the illusion of absolute power corrupts everyone absolutely. As the team secures its place as the defacto leaders of Earth’s future by killing, bribing and dominating anyone who stands against them, their reach finally extends their grasp. It’s just a matter of time until every unleashed horror collapses in on this team of opportunistic scientific schemers and their grand plans and grander delusions make every issue a tragic, stunning, revolting must-read.

Fifth PlaceincBatman Incorporated

Everything ends and everything begins again. It’s a maxim Grant Morrison has often repeated in his mainstream comics but it’s never been so vivid, so dark and so wonderfully daring than in the conclusion of Batman Incorporated. It takes a ruined Gotham, the death of his son and a final battle with the only woman who could have stopped him to take Batman and Bruce Wayne from a child fighting for the wrongs his parents suffered to a father fighting for the children he’s losing and it’s pulled off with aplomb. Morrison’s operatic conclusion to his years of Batman stories is a perfect end to one of the best DC stories of all time and like the ever-present serpent eating its own tale, the last moments of Batman Incorporated show a future for Bruce Wayne that will only begin again, eternally and forever.

Fourth PlaceScreen-Shot-2014-01-26-at-2.52.42-PMEast of West

Every issue of Jonathan Hickman’s masterpiece in progress, East of West, contains the same line: “We did this to ourselves.” East of West is singularly focused on an apocalypse of our own making, a far flung, splintered dystopia not so different from the world we live in. The end of the world isn’t an act of God, despite the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s an act of very mortal hubris, of greed, blind faith, betrayal and xenophobia and between layers of post-modern myth, biblical apocrypha and buckets of blood, it’s a strangely prescient warning of the doom and divisions we still blindly build for ourselves.

Third PlaceBoomerang07The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

Failure is very, very funny. I guess let’s back up from there. Failure is only funny if it’s backed with delusion, if a person only believes they can’t possibly fail or doesn’t even recognize their failures as such. Fred Meyers doesn’t think he can fail. He’s created a new Sinister Six (with only five members), broken his friends out of police custody (which he put them in), killed the traitor in his organization (actually, that didn’t really work out) and planned a daring heist against one of the most dangerous men in New York (under false pretenses). He’s falling apart at the seams and doesn’t even seem to realize it and the rest of his team of narcissists, functioning alcoholics and has-beens are always taking falls and hits they don’t quite deserve. It’s a series which could fall into tragic melodrama just as easily as it lands its humor and that’s what makes The Superior Foes of Spider-Man so special.

Second PlaceXML2X-Men Legacy

X-Men Legacy is indefinable. It’s neither superhero comic nor deconstruction, neither celebration nor character study. It’s something in between but also separated from. Through David Haller, the man once known as Legion, Si Spurrier and a host of artists have examined the nature of heroism with a character who would reject that label. X-Men Legacy is supremely confident in the story it’s telling, one with both world spanning and very personal consequences and stakes and that care shows in every moment. This is an opening statement from Spurrier and a cult classic in waiting, a wonderful story about what being a hero means and the sacrifices and choices that need to be made to get there.

First Placedaredevil_30_panelDaredevil

“Try the red one.” Spoken by the super-sensitive ninja, Ikari in Daredevil #25, it’s a line that walks the balance of horror and humor, of weakness and strength, desperation and victory. It’s the line that made me fall hard for Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Focused on giving Matt Murdock a chance to escape the sadness, death and desperation which has embodied the character since Frank Miller’s turn at the helm, Waid gave his characters a chance to be more than the sum of their parts. Murdock isn’t just a hero when he puts on the suit. He’s a hero when he sits in a cancer ward, a hero when he tries to rebuild his personal life, a hero everytime he reaches out to someone in need. No longer is Matt Murdock defined by tragedy, he’s defined by how he averts it, how he shapes his life and the lives around him with passion, zeal and a never-say-die attitude. Neither indebted to the past nor embarrassed by it, Daredevil soars by letting a character take control and make a difference, or at least let him try. 

The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 3

Sandman_014In between the big issues, the massive story arcs and the character defining changes, there are the spaces in between. These are the little moments, the panels, the moments of dialogue, the spreads that stay for years. This is a celebration of those moments.

The Prepare to Fire – Awarded to standout single page, double page spreads or panels in comics.

Runners Updo-dogs-dream-of-sheepdogsManhattan Projects #14 nearly made the list for a final moment when only Laika, the semi-sentient dog astronaut sees the horror the team has wrought. Black Panther and Namor’s tense declarations of war in New Avengers #7 shows the potency of a team of characters with a longstanding history. Thor’s first strike against the Builders in Infinity #4 almost placed with a legitimately riling kill that shows the strength the Galactic Council was bringing to the war.

Fifth Placethor_-_god_of_thunder_009-005The Battle Begins – Thor God of Thunder #9

As the war between the Thors and Gorr the Godslayer began, Esad Ribic redefined what a splash page should be with a deeply evocative moment defining the power of its protagonists and the forces they’re arrayed against. It’s among the best splash pages since Walt Simonson’s work on Thor and a standout moment from a great story arc.

Fourth Place2rcpglz.jpg“You will always be my friend” – Green Lantern #20

Geoff Johns’ transformation of Sinestro, from domineering would be conqueror out to make sure Hal Jordan stayed dead, to sympathetic, deeply conflicted Green Lantern, to a somewhat unwilling host of Parallax is what made Green Lantern #20 such a triumph. Watching the final crushing battle between Hal and Sinestro shows the deep, rich characterization of two people trying their best to be heroes and their few differences end up defining and separating them in Johns’ landmark final issue.

Third Placebr18_1“Love and respect” – Batman and Robin #18

In a notably passionate silent issue, Bruce Wayne and Alfred try to deal with the death of Damian after his murder. While Bruce delves deeper and deeper into his war on crime, Alfred silently views the legacy he hoped for slowly be erased. All those simmering, contradictory emotions brutally rise to the top as Bruce reads Damian’s last letter and screams in pain and rage for a child who even in defiance, offered him his only chance for hope.

Second PlaceSuperiorFoes4-p13“Total Heisenberg Moment” – Superior Foes of Spider-Man #4

It’s no surprise Fred Meyers would see himself as Breaking Bad’s self-mythologizing sociopath but his moment breaking the rest of his team from the back of a prison transport shows off exactly why he’s earned that honor. Fred’s a hyperbolic, narcissistic social climber and his one moment of unmitigated heroism is something worth remembering.

And the winner is…xmenlegacy20658“Gestalt” – X-Men Legacy #20

I’ve written extensively on this incredible issue but the single image of David, passionately embraced by his first power is a beautiful moment for a damaged hero and shows the power and self control he’s finally been able to seize.

Coming Up: We’re getting close to the top awards but it’s time to pick out the best series of the year. It’s going to be tough but get ready to see if your favorite makes the list.

The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 2

zivaKQHIn 2012, Marvel saw the advantage of focusing on a relatable, realized, rounded character in Clint Barton. The explosion of fan support to Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye showed the potential focusing on characters can have. The Big Two as well as the independents zeroed in on their heroes in 2013 and it’s time to recognize the successes in character building for the year.

The Riker’s Beardies- Awarded for excellence in character growth and increased visibility and fan support.

Runners Uptumblr_mryiboJWVj1s5zf6fo2_1280Brian Wood and Olive Coipel were the perfect pair to revamp Jubilee as a hip, in over her head, would be mother but it’s still too early to tell how the character’s revamp is going to go. Going in a drastically different direction, Charles Soule turning Guy Gardner into a Red Lantern, in the wake of the war with the First Lantern, was a master stroke which finally plays to the character’s savage, impulsive strengths. While her appearance in Avengers Arena was great, Nico didn’t really benefit from her portrayal, despite becoming a nearly godly source of magic.

Tenth PlaceComicBookCast-GuardiansOfTheGalaxy3Review459Star-Lord: Peter Quill – Guardians of the Galaxy

Focusing on Marvel’s cosmic characters was a risky gamble but Brian Michael Bendis absolutely delivered with a host of great artists to create a fresh take on the team with none receiving more attention than Peter Quill. Turning the hero into a whip-smart wise-cracking, rebellious space pirate in the Han Solo mold made the character an instant, relatable hit and the secrets he’s hiding about his seeming return to life just add additional mystery to a character readers already want more of.

Ninth Placeharry-daghlian-investigated-by-doctorsDr. Harry Daghlian – Manhattan Projects

Manhattan Projects has never spent a lot of time focusing on the struggles of it’s characters but two issues in 2013 were spent on the challenges of the man turned atomic zombie, Dr. Harry Daghlian. His struggles to find someone to connect with followed by Fermi’s betrayal showed the human costs of the team’s monstrous actions. Daghlian’s heartbreak in Manhattan Projects #12 was one of the most emotionally wrecking moments of the year and most of it was thanks to focusing on the doctor’s attempts to continue to express his humanity.

Eighth Placetumblr_mwky58ZPj31r82wlpo1_1280Doctor Nemesis and Forge – Cable and the X-Force

Make no mistake about it, Cable and the X-Force is not a good series but the relationship between two of the smartest mutant minds in the business has been occasionally thrilling. The cold, nerdy superiority of Doctor Nemesis is a fun counter point to Forge’s relaxed, spiritual, inspired genius and the pair’s banter has given the book a breezy sense of fun it couldn’t achieve during the early issues of the series.

Seventh Placetumblr_mlsnjhHlOg1s5k9amo1_1280Wasp: Janet Van Dyne – Uncanny Avengers

The return of the Wasp left the character with something of a blank slate. After the success of “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” cartoon, particularly the breakout success of Janet’s character, there was a real chance to capitalize. Luckily, Rick Remender, focused on Janet’s place as a peacemaker and champion of the Avenger’s mission first, and an indomitable sass machine second. She’s one of the best parts of an increasingly dour (and after #14’s ridiculous, pointless violence, dire) book. Her adventure with Captain America and Havok is one of the funniest and sweetest parts of the Avengers franchise this year.

Sixth Placefatale1Jo – Fatale

In the first year of Fatale, Jo was little more than a plot device, designed to advance the stories of the predominantly male protagonists and audience surrogates. That was before she took control of her power and influence in Fatale #10 and went in search of what she can do. Through looks back at what she’s experienced in the past, the powers of her ancestors and her reappearance in Seattle, Jo has taken a hand in her fate. At any given time, she’s the most powerful, dangerous person in the room. Her sexuality is no longer a liability or something to be dealt with, but a weapon and an asset.

Fifth PlaceIceman05_zps487fdbcbIceman: Bobby Drake – All New X-Men, Amazing X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, Wolverine and the X-Men

Of the original five X-Men, Bobby Drake has gone through life relatively unscathed. He’s lived and grown, gaining power and finding love but he’s really come into his own in 2013. Seeing the young, boisterous Iceman along side the mature man he becomes has give additional coloring to both characters and watching and he tries to find love with a woman who he’s always considered a friend has been one of the X-Men’s sweetest romances in years. Seeing him come to terms with his family and changes as well as finding and losing a woman who means so much to him has been a fascinating and emotional ride for a character who has finally seen the hero he can be.

Fourth PlaceSaga1102_zps1cc52accAlana – Saga

Alana has always been one of the driving forces of Saga’s success but writer Brian K. Vaughan showed a much wider side to the character in 2013. Alana is a passionate woman, both in protecting and doing what’s best for her child. She’s obsessed with books and sexually confident and in control and showed such a wide and powerful range of character throughout the year. Her range somehow made Saga an even better comic in 2013 which seemed almost impossible.

Third PlaceHawkeye_14_panel_1Hawkeye: Kate Bishop – Hawkeye, Young Avengers

There’s no character who better defines the new age of comic fans on the internet than Kate Bishop, the surly, impulsive, compulsively fun would-be PI. Kate’s appeal is simple, she’s the girl you want to have a drink with, get pancakes with and desperately ask out on a date. Kate’s effortless charm and no-bullshit take on super-heroing and growing up has made every one of her adventures a must-read, regardless of who’s writing it.

Second PlaceSuperiorFoes5_02Boomerang: Fred Myers – Superior Spider-Man, The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

There’s no one more fun to root for than the underdog and there’s no bigger underdog than perpetually in over his head, constantly scheming and always on the run, Fred Myers. Pursued by Chameleon, his parole officer and, occasionally, his own teammates, Boomerang constantly thinks he’s one step ahead only to realize how far behind he is. His failings don’t stop his always running internal commentary, mostly focused on homicide, binge drinking and the next step of his scheme to make a quick buck. I can’t wait to watch him try and fail all through 2014.

First Placexmenlegacy20658David Haller: Legion – X-Men Legacy

Si Spurrier’s take on one of the X-Men franchise’s most controversial characters is a fascinating, relentlessly creative and insightful study of a deeply flawed man. David’s struggle to be a hero, not a super-hero, is a deeply emotional and wonderful look at what it means to impact real change on the world and a persecuted people. Spurrier’s look at David has allowed readers to question exactly what it means to be a hero and how that can be done while dealing with the very real emotional and mental issues many people deal with.

Coming Up: It’s time to look for those moments that make you take a step back, namely the best scenes of the year. It’s going to get raw, occasionally sexy, tear jerking, and really, really violent.

The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 1

WHATIFAVX2013002_int_LR-3-4It’s the end of the year and so that means it’s time to look back at this year in comics with the returned Vulcan Quiche Awards. There are new categories this year, many of which will be looking at the top ten issues or books of the year but it’s time to recognize the best miniseries or one-shot of the year.

The Shorties  – Saluting excellence in a limited series or one-shot.

Runners Upthanos-rising001
Jason Aaron and Simone Bianchi really tried to give the titular character a strong origin story in Thanos Rising but just sort of made him look weak, pitiful, whiny and uninteresting, despite some standout moments. In the same way, What if…Avengers vs. X-Men stuck the landing and hit massive high points but didn’t have the time to really sell the dangerous insanity of Magneto’s schemes. Batman Black and White is exactly the kind of artist and writer showcase DC needs to be doing much more often but the series massive shifts in quality couldn’t land it a top spot.

Fifth PlaceAssassinationofadandookuStar Wars: Agent of the Empire – Hard Target

It’s rare that Star Wars books get into the gritty details of how the Imperials maintained control of a vast and diverse galaxy but the Agent of the Empire series has always looked at the politics and compromises which go into control through the lens of Jahan Cross. The grizzled and ethically compromised spy, assassin and much more is dispatched to Alderaan to install a regime which will be supportive of Emperor Palpatine but the scheming of Adan Dooku and a double cross on Boba Fett make the operation much more difficult and bring many of the universe’s power players together to decide the fate of a planet which will soon be destroyed. It’s not a heady series but it’s a great, focused look at one of the most venerable pop culture franchises.

Fourth PlaceScreen Shot 2013-08-28 at 4.09.47 PMBatman Incorporated Special #1

The message of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman Incorporated is the idea that Batman is an eternal force, always in place to battle corruption and crime. He’s there, unchanging and unwavering but by series’ end, Bruce Wayne’s life and Batman’s empire is in shambles. There’s nothing left to build from. Taking some of the writers and artists intimately familiar with Morrison’s epic, Batman Incorporated Special #1 shows the effect Batman Incorporated has had on the DCU and the inspiration Bruce’s fight has had for a new generation of worldwide crime fighters. It’s a slightly more optimistic ending for one of the best Batman stories ever.

Third Placetumblr_mju3dz0CmO1s5k9amo1_1280Sledgehammer ’44

While Mike Mignola’s franchises have always had a great reverence for the sacrifices made by soldiers in World War II, Sledgehammer ’44 humanized and focused the death and destruction of the conflict to one man’s decision. After the Allies drop a steam-punk Iron Man in occupied France, one soldier has to decide if his soul is worth the cost of saving his comrades in arms. It’s a beautiful, wonderfully rendered series which focuses on the results of destruction more than the violence which caused it and with Sledgehammer ’44: Lightning War just starting, it’s nice to see the Hellboy franchise continue to focus on one of its most human and most tragic heroes.

Second PlaceBullseyes-booze-DDEOD4Daredevil: End of Days

“Matt Murdock was my best friend. I don’t think I was his best friend.” This line, part reverence, part obligation and part self-pity define the quest of once famed journalist Ben Urich as he goes about trying to recreate the legacy of the slain Daredevil in this exceptional series. Like the surviving villains and heroes, Ben is haunted by the memories of the angel of Hell’s Kitchen and defined by his actions, long after Matt meets his bitter end. Daredevil: End of Days is all about collapse, the fall and changes in a city, characters and world but it’s hopeful and willing to look to the future and influences one man can have in a world which seems to eternally resist such change. It’s some of Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack’s defining work on the character and the legacy The Man Without Fear created but it’s also a fitting end to the series defining run these two creators had.

First PlacemaxresdefaultAmerican Vampire – The Long Road to Hell

Scott Snyder doesn’t spend a lot of time on the innocent victims in American Vampire. While the series is mostly the tale of a vendetta between the psychotic Skinner Sweet and his once victim-turned-hunter Pearl, it’s also a retelling of American culture in the 20th Century, namely how “The Other” is viewed. More often than not, The Other in the series are the vampires themselves, but The Long Road to Hell focuses on a recently turned couple, slowly figuring out how and if they can feed themselves ethically on the blood of human cattle. Unbeknownst to them, their moral barometer, vampire hunter Travis Kidd, is coming and no one can survive. It’s a single issue bold enough to cast one of its premier heroes as a cold, remorseless serial killer and it does so confidently and with aplomb, making the wait until the new miniseries in March even more difficult.

Coming Up: 2013 was a year defined by characters and relationships, with all the companies angling to invest readers in their icons. Let’s recognize the characters that defined the year and broke barriers over the last 12 months.

“Every human is a legion in need of a leader” – X-Men Legacy #20 is the best mutant book of Marvel Now

xmenlegacy20658For 20 issues, Si Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat and a bevy of other artists have built up and torn down, David Haller, not Legion, not the whipping boy for Marvel’s Age of Apocalypse story-line. Over the course of those 20 issues, David has been redefined, not a hero, not a villain, not a lover, not a freedom fighter, not a killer, not a savior but an emotionally and psychically beaten young man, reaching out for a better world and the people who can help him make one. If it weren’t for the pants-pissing psychic aliens, head hugging squids, German psycho-theory and gold skinned embodiment of the jealous id, it would be the most realistic portrayal of the human condition in Marvel’s current line up.

Instead, this week’s #20 is only the best issue of Marvel Now and one of the best issues of any X-Men book of the last two years.

The pivotal idea X-Men Legacy has built itself on is how self-image not only defines how we’re perceived but what the individual sees themselves being capable of. In the book’s early issues, David dismisses the X-Men as the “tights and spandex set,” believing they’re unwilling or unable to help mutants in need if it doesn’t involve a pointless, neverending war. However, David has grown. His relationship with Blindfold and his antagonistic relationship with Abigail Brand have had him looking at the more proactive options to change the world. He can knock out villains before they become a threat, when he takes out Arkus in #9, he can change the way his race is perceived by dealing with international diplomacy in his European sojourn in issues #13 and #14 and he can use himself as the ultimate nuclear deterrent in issues #17 and #18.

timthumb.phpWhat’s important is that David thinks he can do all of this alone. With a wealth of powers and the ability to goad, inspire, blackmail and control people into working with him, David thinks he can assemble an army of like minded individuals but he can’t. He’s selfish and manipulative, driven by his own needs, motives and plans rather than the desires or concerns of others.

What X-Men Legacy #20 does so well is undercut David self-reliance. With the Quartex ravaged by the Shadow Phoenix, David struggles to control his myriad powers and personalities. He desperately reaches out for the powers that can save him but can’t find a partner, can’t find someone, anyone who would be willing to aid him. As he faces down death and irrelevance, he realizes he needs not powers, not allies but friends and partners.

SEP130764-02The crowning moment of the issue is David embracing his powers. Bringing together his personalities and powers, he’s no longer a user but a partner. He declares himself “Gestalt,” a German philosophical term meaning an entity, being or organization which is more than the sum of its parts. The use of the term is particularly powerful here because it builds off the potent metaphor of the Quartex which has been established since the series’ beginning.

Since issue #1, David has been forced to deal with his mind, a prison he is both bound in and master of. When David is in the Quartex, he’s either the hunter, searching for the powers and abilities he needs and willing to do anything to have them, or the hunted, chased mercilessly by the beings imprisoned there. Either way, David is the focus, he’s alone and the active agent. Everything else is passive, victim or fighter.

SEP130764-03For the last 20 issues, David has treated people little better than he’s treated his personalities. Hes’ been confrontational with everyone, using them as tools and weapons even when he’s pushing for further cooperation between mutants. When David declares “Gestalt,” he’s not only pushing for unity within his own mind but for Xavier’s dream. Finally, David knows he can be stronger and more capable as a partner than as an individual and he’s able to shatter the image of himself as a lone force of change. His self image has changed and his options have changed with them.

It’s interesting to revaluate David’s path to self-actualization over the course of the series looking at the changes he’s made in issue #20. All of David’s trickery, subterfuge and morally murky choices made in the earlier issues appear even more self-centered and dangerous. The power and confidence he displays, falling from the Peak to hunt down the psychic ghost of his father is electric and it’s a portrait of a character willing to do whatever needs done and finally wielding the power to do just that.