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. 

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“The world is won with violence” – Jonathan Hickman defines the new Golden Age of comics in East of West #4

East-of-West-4-Maos-ReignIt’s hard to place the moment when comics changed, leaving the cigarette butts and undrawn feet of the Bronze Age and entered the new era. I generally put it either in 2002 with the release of the first Spider-Man film and Marvel’s attempts to turn its characters into brands, or with the beginning of Avengers Dissasembled, when Brian Michael Bendis blew up Marvel’s structured universe and focused on the characters who defined the world.

Both point to character driven narrative, a focus on motivation over shock tactics, violence with consequences over violence for posturing and analysis over deconstruction. There are a few writers and artists who have masterfully embraced the spirit of the new status quo: Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Geoff Johns on his best days, and most importantly, Jonathan Hickman.

tumblr_motxa032U31qknzn8o1_1280Coming up through Image when the company was beginning its creative renaissance and making a name for himself at Marvel during the Secret Invasion/Dark Reign eras, Hickman was uniquely poised for success. He’s always had an eye for blistering, brilliant violence, morally compromised characters and a genius for redefining the place his characters exist in. We’ve seen it as Reed Richards looked inwards to redefine the Fantastic Four’s place in the world, the return of one of Marvel’s most forgotten characters into a cataclysmic event and now, redefining Death himself in his masterpiece in progress, East of West.

Between Manhattan Projects and two great Avengers titles, Hickman has had plenty of room to play with different characters and situations. In this week’s East of West #4, was obviously going to be a fight issue. Death, bringing his wrath on Mao and New Shanghai was going to be brutal and it suitably is but the interesting thing is about who’s playing the cards. A final page reveals that Xiaolian holds all the power over her white rider and a great conversation between Chamberlain and the child horsemen shows the power Death has over all those who have wronged him.

east_of_west_004-024 What takes East of West #4 from being a great comic to one of this year’s best is the way Hickman and Nick Dragotta humanize a destructive force and keep him an enigma. Xiaolian has been defined as a woman with control and agency, one who even with her back against the wall demonstrates total control and her hold over Death is clearly about more than love. Her brutality shows the human face of violence and a sense of dominance mirrored in Death’s massive slaughter. These are characters with a history, a connection that goes beyond love and chaos.

The defining thing about East of West has been the way Hickman and Dragotta have shaded their twisted world. There’s a wonderful sense of building, with a slowly unraveling back story of betrayals and shattered alliances and each new character and event adds additional colors and twists to the characters. Whether it’s Death’s devotion, Chamberlain’s fearless stance against the Horsemen or Xiaolian exorcising her familial demons in a flurry of horrendous violence, East of West is a world constantly in flux and a masterfully presented one that defines where comics are and what they can be.

Stray ObservationsEHYHktC

  • Nightwing has rarely been one of DC’s most exceptional titles but taking Dick out of Gotham and bringing him into Chicago’s twisted urban hellscape has given the book energy it hasn’t had since Night of the Owls. This week’s #22 might be the best issue of the series yet, with the Prankster tightening his grip on the city and Nightwing getting closer to Zucco’s hiding place. I’m going to thank Brett Booth for taking the month off.
  • Astro City #2 went back to the classic style the series is used to, with citizens being called to heroism in the mundane. It’s a solid way to show that despite the series new trappings, it’s still the book I know and love.
  • I’ve sang the praises of Otto-Spidey and Superior Spider-Man #13 is taking the character in a new direction, with Spidey blackmailing J. Jonah Jameson, killing Alistair Smythe and maybe going back to his old ways in a new villainous lair.
  • I don’t really know what to think of Batgirl #22. This is the second issue in a row where the title character has been the target of rape threats and the third in which a woman has. I have to ask, is Gail Simone trying to portray the struggles women face or is she using the same cheap literary devices she has rallied so passionately against?

“This is what I wanted to show you” – Astro City #1 brings us back to the most important city in comics

astro3I never thought I would get to read new Astro City.

Let’s go back to 2009. I hadn’t kept up with any comics outside of mainstream books in a long time, mostly sticking with Batman and the major DC and Marvel events. I was also at one of the lowest points of my life. I was incredibly depressed, drinking to the point of oblivion most days of the week  and helpless to try to find happiness.

I never wanted to make this blog about me or about my life because my experiences aren’t unique and the narrative is less important than who we are and what we take away from the things we experience. It just so happens that Astro City helped to let me take an important, critical look at the things I cared about.

astrocitypanoramaI discovered Astro City in trade at the university library and I devoured the first volume before going onto the rest of the series and collecting as many issues and trades as I could get a hold of before I had the whole series. I went back and explored writer Kurt Busiek’s other works and it got me back into independent, artistic, challenging comic books.

I celebrated the news that Astro City was coming back and holding the first new issue in years in my hands, I felt a wave of excitement, nostalgia and care that comics rarely give me. And of course, opening tbe book brought all of those feelings back. Busiek is simultaneously as challenging, welcoming and whip smart as usual and penciller Brent Anderson leaps back into the sharp, retro design style he nailed in the series first outing.

AstroCity01_zpsd605d2f7Putting new characters such as the paranoid, insane watchdog, The Broken Man, alongside the optimistic powerhouse, American Chibi front and center highlights the inventive spirit the new volume and the return of well loved members of the Honor Guard  and independent characters such as the Confessor makes this world feel as fully realized as ever.

The focus of Astro City has always been on the city’s civilian residents and the way they’re drawn into the super-heroics of the city. Ben Pullman is our guy this time, a seemingly satisfied but ultimately bored programmer who volunteers to be a representative of a whole new world. It’s something of a throwback to the very first issue of the series, where the heroes have to deal with forces beyond their power but that’s not by any means a problem. History is one of the most important parts of a series that succeeds by swimming in the passage of time.

10Busiek is quick to remind us what this series is about, the history of the medium and the way our lives can change and be reflected in the culture we consume. A wonderfully inventive, bleak and cutting final two pages remind readers that much like the heroes, our world can seem irresistibly small when we’re confronted with change. The wonderful thing is that we’re allowed to independently pick up the book, volunteer and choose to be satisfied.

Stray Observations

3083946-gl21Lots of really good books this week. Let’s check out some of the more interesting ones.

  • Jonathan Hickman had two great books this week, East of West #3 and Avengers #13. Both show off his mastery of character specific dialogue. Mao’s honorable but fruitless bluster in the face of Death’s coming attack is a great moment fitting a character we just met and Hyperion’s revelations in Avengers feels like the kind of character moment a lesser author would have handled with less subtlety. Hickman makes both feel masterful.
  • James Robinson’s Earth 2 has weirdly been something of a minor hit for DC and it always surprised me. Earth 2 has felt like a bit of a disservice to the company’s Golden Age characters but the way he played with the Green Lantern mythos is this week’s #13 is really promising.
  • Kierron Gillen’s new issue of Iron Man really showed how to do a retcon well. The revelation about Tony Stark’s past is organic to the character, doesn’t undo his past actions and offers a wealth of storytelling opportunities.
  • Age of Ultron #9 finally had the characters realize what every reader thought of 8 issues ago. I’m curious to see how and if Brian Michael Bendis is going to make all this build up pay off.
  • Bendis is, however, nailing All New X-Men. The way he’s turned Jean Grey into a wild card was such an initially unexpected but perfectly realized characterization and I love seeing how the character deals with recent events like Decimation.
  • Robert Venditti really did a great job on Green Lantern #21, his first issue since Geoff Johns’ departure. I’m not crazy about how young and soft Billy Tan is making Hal Jordan look but I’m super ready to see what these guys can do.

“You are now entering Astro City” – Prepping for the return of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s masterpiece

AC Confession HC dustjacket_wpsmDC has made some odd choices as far as new content. Whether they’re regularly canceling series before they hit 10 issues, starting up poorly thought out series solely to tie into upcoming events or constantly changing creative teams, the company feels like it’s stagnating.

But all that feels like it could change with last week’s announcement of the return of Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross’ exceptional comic book homage, Astro City. I’ve long put Astro City in the very top of my favorite comics with Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer, Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing and David Mack’s Kabuki. It’s a series obsessed with the passing of time, the way the years change us, harden us, ease our burdens and physically wear on a city. With a rich, totally independent history of characters, battles, teams, rivalries and betrayals that span hundreds of years, Astro City is dense but that focus on detail makes the experience much richer. For many readers who’ve come to DC thanks to the attention-grabbing New 52, Astro City is a pretty unfamiliar property, one the company came into after the purchase of Wildstorm, but there’s plenty of fun, easy and fascinating stories to sink into as you walk from Shadow Hill all the way to Mount Kirby.

1-2. “Everyday Life” and “Adventures in Other Worlds”77940_s0The first multi-issue story of the series gives a proper introduction to the First Family, Astro City’s version of the Fantastic Four, but focuses primarily on Astra, the youngest member of the team who has never experienced being a child. Craving the civilian life she dreams of, Astra runs away, leaving the family to deal with her adoptive dinosaur father, Rex, a lecherous lupine adversary, intergalactic threats and a cartoony lecturer. It’s one of the most low-key Astro City stories, focused on the way the young and older members in the family react to threats to their structure but it’s a good peek at how Busiek tries less to deconstruct teams then to humanize them.

3-4. “Serpent’s Teeth” and “Father’s Day”jack-in-the-box-14Another early, excellent two-parter, “Serpent’s Teeth” and “Father’s Today” demand characters and creators to consider their legacies. When Daredevil-meets-Spider-Man medley Jack-In-The-Box finds out his wife is pregnant, he’s forced to consider what his continued battle against crime could mean and whether he will be able to put on the mask with his wife and child at home. Running parallel to his internal conflict is a hysterical external threat in which a half-robot clown from the future and a fleshy, homicidal fanged being, both claiming to be his child from the future and resembling Cable and Venom respectively, show up to show the effects of an unknown disaster that could befall Jack’s child. It’s an issue where the hero has to make hard choices or risk falling into the dark hole of forced, violent edginess that Busiek clearly abhors.

5. “The Scoop”astrocitypanoramaOne of the things most apparent in the early issues of Astro City is Busiek’s focus on the non-super-powered inhabitants of the city. They deal with the trauma, danger and complicated surreal activities that are everyday life in the metropolis. In the excellent “The Scoop,” one journalist tell the story that would have made his career as a cult, shark-men, the Honor Guard and interdimensional intrusions all rub up against AP style and the need for proper citations. It’s one of the funnier issues and is sure to be uncomfortably familiar to anyone who’s made a living on the crime beat.

6. “Dark Age”astro-city-the-dark-ageIn the final series published before Busiek left the series in 2010, readers are finally treated to the secrets that have hung over the city since the very first issue. In the epic 16 issue arc, two brothers survive the twisted gang violence of the ’70s only to get involved in something much darker as the ’80s begin and The Pale Horsemen comes to Astro City. While the plight of a pair of brothers, both forced into difficult choices by the changing times, provide a clear audience surrogate, the main story is a history lesson in the way the Silver Age changed into the darker, ethical complexities of the Bronze Age. There are so many great touches, between the fall of the Silver Agent, the arrival of the visually similar Blue Knight, the transformation of Simon Magus into the Swamp Thing-esque Green Man, the marginalization of the First Family and many characters having to make a choice in how they’re going to survive as the times change. It’s a must read, although it’s incredibly dense, requiring readers know the motivations and secrets of many of the city’s colorful characters.

7. “Show ‘Em All”astro-city-life-in-the-big-city-jack-in-the-boxAn Eisner award winner, “Show ‘Em All” is essentially a perfect document of what Astro City’s goals. When the Trashman pulls off the perfect heist, he feels empty with no one knowing who jacked over $7 million without getting caught. It prompts a series of robberies more about getting the attention of the super-hero community than making a profit. It’s an issue that suggests the need for fame, the way even the villains need adoration in a city which worships its heroes.

8. “Dinner at Eight”10061_Astro-City-e1352501858457When DC made headlines with the Superman/Wonder Woman cover of Justice League #12, I was confused. Despite the passionate kiss on the cover, the two didn’t seem to have any chemistry. They’re both orphans and apparently Geoff Johns thought that was all it takes to throw the characters together and so far, there hasn’t been a crack in their non-existent chemistry. Astro City did a much more realistic job, hooking up Samaritan and Winged Justice for a dinner date which shows two of the world’s most powerful characters almost coming to blows. Icons become what they are because their actions are backed up by beliefs. Winged Justice’s defense of women and passion for the oppressed doesn’t match up with Samaritan’s self-imposed martyrdom and despite the physical attraction and similar morals, the two aren’t perfect for each other. Even  the kiss at issue’s end is little more than a promise of hope between two people, not one of everlasting affection. It’s the intelligence of Busiek’s script and Anderson’s realistic lines which let these characters stand up for themselves when questioned rather than fall under the sway of overarching plot.

“Well, it isn’t our dapper dark knight” : 10 intriguing Batman stories that don’t feature the Caped Crusader

Batman has long been one of DC’s most enduring heroes and one of the most recognizable characters in American pop culture. He’s also one that is ripe for examination, parody and re-appropriation. What makes this more and more interesting is the way in which different authors have used the Batman archetype to explore different universes and to examine the character in ways that he hadn’t been looked at in his own universe. Some great books even manage to spin the character into someone that could be interpreted far differently than the hero we all know.

1. “Astro City: Dark Age Part 1”

In Kurt Busiek’s epic retelling of the way that comics evolved from the late silver age into the hyper violent and complex bronze age, Street Angel plays a moderately small role. A vigilante battling crime in the streets while the more powerful heroes battle against the intergalactic enemies that are taking on the city, Street Angel is hoping to keep his moral code against killing as the city descends into chaos but as Silver Agent begins to make the difficult choices, Angel has to face that the pain he brings criminals may not be worse than killing them. When we last see him, he’s sitting in his misery, not knowing whether his future in Astro City will be an accommodating one.

2.  “The Duck Knight Returns” – Darkwing Duck

Frank Miller is may be my favorite comics writer ever but he’s really easy to mock. If you know his best known work, “The Dark Knight Returns,” you’re going to have a lot of fun with Darkwing Duck’s take on the story. When he finds his city completely under the control of publicly traded organizations with businesses even controlling the police force. He’s driven to put back on the cape and sombrero and bring justice to St. Canard. Making everything more fun, classic “DuckTales” characters  contribute to the Darkwing Duck adventure in major ways.

3.  “Revenge is a Dish Best Served Three Times” – The Simpsons

Bartman has been aluded to many, many times in “The Simpsons” but in a direct parody of “Batman Begins,” Bart tells a story about how awesome and useful revenge can be. It might be worth watching just to see Snake taking the role of Joe Chill.

4. “Showdown” – Batman: The Animated Series 

Batman and Robin both show up briefly in “Showdown” but most of the episode is a flashback about one of Ras al Ghul’s sons being defeated by one of Old Gotham’s best killers, Jonah Hex. Its an invigorating episode, filled with great fights, an awesome plot and a great peak at the relationship and respect that Batman and Ras have for each other, despite being enemies.

5. “Asro City: Confession”

Busiek’s written Batman for the Justice League as well as in his exceptional “Trinity” series but its clear that he has a soft spot for the violent hero that could face down anything and anyone. “Confession” stars Astro City’s other Dark Knight analogue, the Confessor, and is told through the voice of his sidekick, describing a series of slayings in Shadow Hill, a bizarre storyline featuring alien invasions and corrupt government officials and a hero in black who’s controlled by his own moral code as well as struggling with who he is. This is less of an analysis of Batman and more of an engaging what-if story, but it does delve into the mindset of the teenage Robins who give the dark knight their allegiance.

6. “Holy Terror”

By no means is “Holy Terror” a good book. Its misogynistic, utterly dark, misanthropic, overly violent, overly masculine and jingoistic. Frank Miller’s mess of a 9/11 graphic novel was meant to be about Batman’s hunt for Osama bin Laden but ended up being a book about dull Batman and Catwoman analogues shooting terrorists. On its own, “Holy Terror” is an utter failure but it does almost make one consider what it was that Miller was really intending to communicate in the thematically similar “The Dark Knight Returns.”

7. “Battle for the Cowl”

Sadly, Grant Morrison will probably be best remembered for killing Batman in the frankly, pretty terrible “Final Crisis.” That being said, he was able to craft much more engaging stories about the Dark Knight, namely “Batman Incorporated” but “Battle for the Cowl” is an enormously engaging series about the future of Gotham. As Bruce Wayne battles his way through time, the Bat-family engages in a city encompassing war for who will wear the cowl. Morrison is obsessed with Robin and he shows it here, developing Dick Grayson into an adult hero as well as showing the future role that Damian would play in fighting for the future of the city. Much like Jeph Loeb’s “Dark Victory,” “Battle for the Cowl” explores the ways in which the Robins have to accept power and what the future of holding this power can hold.

8. “Kabuki: Circle of Blood”

Perhaps the best comic series of the ’90s, David Mack’s “Kabuki” is an enthralling fusion of neo-noir, international espionage, World War II fiction, metatextual analysis and “Alice in Wonderland” imagery. The story, initially a battle between the agents of the Noh and a terrorist group, the narrative blooms into a story about Japanese trauma, living up to the memories of a parent and leaving a better world than the one you came into. The story of Ukiko, a child orphaned after her mother’s murder, and her eventual transformation into the assassin Kabuki borrows heavily from the Batman mythos and repeated uses of Alice and Wonderland imagery, particularly borrowed from Grant Morrison’s “Serious House on Serious Earth,” ties Kabuki very strongly to a certain Western hero. However, the way that Mack grounds his hero in real world trauma and extistential angst makes us view both the minds of Bruce Wayne and Batman in a considerably more nuanced and fractured way.

9. “Death of the Goon” – The Goon #39

The list of characters, writers, artists, trends and storylines that are skewered in Eric Powell’s delirious parody issue of superheroes is nearly endless and he manages to mock the Batman/Catwoman relationship mercilessly. In a series of panels where Goon decides to become an interracial street avenger who stops people who realized that “hanging out in an alley would really pay off,” he saves a woman only to go into a long monologue about why he can’t fall in love. Meanwhile, Franky checks “angst ridden monologue” off the list of tropes that need to appear in their superhero issue. Of course, that’s all before Goon and Franky decide to become gay Republican Puerto Rican socialist transvestites from space who believe in Jesus. You know, solely for the media attention.

10. “Sin City: The Hard Goodbye”

After smoking his 400th cigarette of the day and fucking a hooker with a heart of gold, Frank Miller spits on the piss slick floor of his apartment, swallows a mouthfull of whiskey, curses and wonders whether there’s a way he could add more hardcore violence to neo-noir. After “The Dark Knight Returns,” Miller devoted himself to putting even more violence into a story about a man with nothing to live for, trying to save a city that long ago lost its’ soul. This is the Batman that Miller wishes he would have written and it serves as a better companion piece to “Year One” and his other works than “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”