Monday, January 28, 2008

Graphic Lit: Superheroes

This week's column is a pretty good example of why I started this blog, in that I had to cut over half the content out in order to fit it on our ever-shrinking newspaper page. Our editorial space keeps being cut drastically. It's not anyone's fault, I'm just stuck in a dying business I guess. Either that or I write too damn long.

Anyway, here's the column as originally intended.

It’s tough to be a superhero comic these days.

As the core fan base grows older and more demanding for “serious” (i.e. excessively violent) stories, it can be difficult to attract new readers.

You see, the older the character or universe gets, the more complicated and esoteric its history becomes. Trying to placate fans who’ve spent time and effort investing in a hero’s lineage while also attempting to bring in new fans can put one in considerable hot water.

Take the recent debacle involving Spider-Man for example. Longing for the days when Peter Parker was a swinging (pardon the pun) single, the powers that be at Marvel decided to undo his marriage with Mary Jane — not through divorce or trial separation but by having him make a deal with the devil, erasing his marriage from existence in order to save his beloved Aunt May.

Reaction was swift and derisive, if not downright hostile. Many longtime fans threatened to stop reading Spidey’s adventures while newcomers may have found the premise too laughable to invest their cash.

Still, high-quality cape and cowl books do exist, if you know where to find them. Here are four titles currently being published by the big two — Marvel and DC — that you can walk right into your local comic shop, pick up and enjoy without having to have a master’s degree in Superherology:

“The Immortal Iron Fist”
by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Aja, Marvel, $2.99 per issue.

Brubaker, Fraction and Aja do the rather impressive feat of taking an up-till-now negligible C-list character — martial arts expert Daniel Rand — and suddenly making him relevant and interesting by positioning him as the latest in a long line of “Iron Fists.” The added back story gives the book some gravitas and weight while still managing to be a fun, gritty kung-fu homage. (Note: The first six issues have been collected into a $14.99 trade, “The Last Iron Fist Story.”)

“Omega the Unknown”
by Jonathan Lethem, Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier, Marvel, $2.99 per issue.

Originally created by Steve Gerber and Jim Mooney in the 1970s, Omega was an idiosyncratic comic about an overly intelligent teenage orphan and his mute, enigmatic superhero guardian that lasted just long enough (10 issues) to develop a cult following.

Acclaimed novelist Lethem (“Fortress of Solitude”) and indie artist Dalrymple’s 10-issue revamp tries to pay homage to the original’s offbeat tone while creating its own quiet, surreal feel. It takes a few issues to build up steam, but by the third you can sense it simultaneously creating an aura of mystery and dread that makes you eager to pick up the next issue.

“Booster Gold”
by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund, DC, $2.99 per issue.

Like “Iron Fist,” “Booster Gold” also focuses on a third-rate hero, in this case an attention-seeking showboater from the future. The catch here is that Booster finds himself becoming the savior of the DC universe by having to travel through time and fix anomalies so that, say, Superman doesn’t end up as Lex Luthor’s little brother.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the comic is that while it’s clearly focused on DC minutiae, it doesn’t become mired in it. It’s more than happy to explain itself to the unfamiliar reader who doesn’t know or care who Rip Hunter or Jonah Hex are. It sets up its rules, explains them concisely and then goes about its business, namely creating a fun adventure.

It’s also rather genuinely funny, which is not something you can say about a lot of superhero books these days.

“The Brave and the Bold”
by Mark Waid and George Perez, DC, $2.99 per issue.

Superhero fans love a good team-up, and “Brave and the Bold” attempts to scratch that itch in spades. In the first story arc (now collected into a hardcover $25 book, “The Lords of Luck”) Batman, Supergirl, Green Lantern and many others travel back and forth through time to retrieve an item of dire importance. The plot’s just an excuse to have these colorful characters bump up against each other, and it’s fun to see, for example, the uber-professional Batman rub shoulders with the nervous neophyte Blue Beetle.

It sounds like the sort of thing only hard-core DC nerds would appreciate, but Waid and Perez bring a light touch to the project — there were characters here I wasn’t aware of or familiar with, but I didn’t feel left out once. It’s a fun thrill ride of a book. 
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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