Comics, Meetings

Meeting Lewis Trondheim

Nine years ago, (freeze-frame, record scratch, “wait, nine years ago?!” “Oh yes, it has indeed been that long”) nine long fucking years ago, one fine day in June (May?), I torrented a bunch of comics off of Demonoid. For those who came in late, Demonoid was a sort-of elite bit-torrent hub that guaranteed quality content. Umm, quality pirated content, back in those Dark Ages when the internet was a mud-pit you needed to dive in to and swirl around in for a bit before you grabbed onto something that might be good but you wouldn’t really know until you got the dang thing on your hard drive and clicked on it, but then oh no, all your file extensions would change and you could not click on anything anymore and the only way to do anything was to set the computer on fire and move to another city and start over with your life…. Ok, maybe not that dramatic, but close. Things were not synchronous — you could not press a button and have movies, music, or books streamed to you with zero delay. There was work involved in consumption.

But Demonoid was a safe space, in the sense that the torrents were vetted properly, and uploaders were particular about what sort of files they put up. My deal with Demonoid was that every night, I would scroll past the comics section, checking for new uploads that looked interesting. From the descriptions and an accompanying Google search, of course. Most of it was filled with random superhero trash, most of which I already read and owned, or random underground trash that I did not like, or porno comics that barely fit the constraints of “porno” or “comic”.

Except that night, I came across this series called Dungeon, and a creator named Lewis Trondheim. Searching for him led me to French blogs and websites. The cover artwork looked great, cartoon figures done in a minimalist way, and with just the kind of signals that tell you the content within is not for kids. And turned out the American publishers were an outfit called NBM, who were bringing in, among other things, works by Hugo Pratt, reprints of classic Terry and the Pirates. Cool. I downloaded the set, and read the first two arcs. The reading order was included in the description, because apparently the series had been published as collections of stories that jump through time and various characters. Even the choice of artists was different, except of course, for the common elements — creators Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar.

I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved it so much that I sat down and wrote a long review of the first arc, Dungeon Zenith, for my ongoing Rolling Stone column. It is still online, bad formatting and all. (Not my fault, I believe their website mangled some encoding characters) I stand by nearly everything I wrote, and that’s a kinda-sorta miracle considering how much my tastes have changed in the last decade. Except I cringe about the fact that I say Joann Sfar is the artist. I am wrong, Trondheim did the art. Sfar is an artist as well, and you can read his incredible work in The Rabbi’s Cat, but the distinctive look of Herbert the Duck and Malvin the Dragon is all Trondheim. And as I found out later, Trondheim has a thing for anthropomorphic animals.

The problem with reading Dungeon back then, and with writing the review, was that I ended up getting inundated with questions about where one could buy the books. To close friends, I told the truth, and even passed on a DVD burnt with the set of downloaded Demonoid files. (On an aside, isn’t it strange that the phrase “burn a DVD” will cease to exist in a few years? If it hasn’t already). To others, I pointed them to the NBM site, because at that time, their books weren’t even stocked on Amazon. It was obscure beyond belief.

A year and a half later, I traveled to Spain for the first time in my life, and ended up meeting a whole new universe of comic art friends with whom I had corresponded online for the better part of a decade. They in turn took me to meet various creators, in their studios, and to the homes of their friends. And funnily enough, every shelf I glanced at (and drooled over, because the Spanish publishing houses did not skimp on their deluxe editions. This was the time when Preacher did not even have a hardcover release in America, while Spain had them published in oversized editions with faux-leather covers, designed to look like family Bibles) had a couple of series in common. There was the ever-popular Tintin and Asterix, and Franquin’s Spirou and Pratt’s Corto Maltese. And there was, surprise surprise, Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series.

To my surprise, these were large, album-sized volumes. It was jarring to realize that Twilight was actually six volumes when I had read three, but flipping through them, I realized that the American editions were 2-in-1 editions. My friends told me about how the rotating crop of artists were fan favorites, names like Christoph Blain, Manu Larcenet, and Boulet, whose works I would go on to explore later. It transpired that this series that I had thought of as an adorable, little-known whimsy was actually quite the cultural cornerstone. In France and Spain, Donjon or Mazmora was a phenomenon among fans and creators alike.

In 2017, Trondheim visited San Diego Comic Con, along with his wife Bridget Findakly, as part of the release of Bridget’s graphic memoir Poppies of Iraq. That was a year when my SDCC plans had fallen through, but I got a pass for a single day just so I could go meet them (and a few other creators, like Marjorie Liu, Adam Warren, and Nate Powell). It was a pleasure meeting them, and Lewis did a beautiful sketch in my copy of Ralph Azam and another in Poppies, which Bridget colored beautifully.

But it was San Diego, so there was not much in terms of interaction other than a thank-you and the hurried drawing. There were other fans waiting behind me, and there were signing schedules to queue up for. I felt lucky to have met them — and Findakly’s book was an excellent read during my train ride back. The little sketch they drew almost looked like it was printed on the paper, and brought a smile to my face every time I saw it.

* * *

At SDCC 2018, I saw an ad for a comics festival due to be held in May 2019 at Huntington Beach. The guest list for the festival was awe-inspiring. Sergio Aragones, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, usual SDCC stalwarts. Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips would be there, Sean’s first Stateside appearance in more than a decade. And a treasure trove of French creators, including Lewis Trondheim and Boulet, another Dungeon artist. I marked the dates on the calendar, eager for a chance to meet Trondheim again.

Last September, I visited Rose City Comic Con, as part of an attempt to visit more conventions outside California. It was held in the heart of Portland, and the experience made me eager to continue my non-California con trips. Talking about this convention experience will take a whole post of its own, but what was important about Rose City was that at one particular booth, Cosmic Monkey Comics, I found a near-complete set of Dungeon, and Trondheim’s autobiographical Little Nothings for a price that made me want to go around shrieking with joy. I had tried, without much success, to look for Dungeon in bargain bins, but NBM did not run discounts. Their books were on Amazon, but at full price.

So last weekend, when NCSFest was due to happen, I decided to go overboard with my signing plans, and took every single one of those books with me. The worst that could happen was that I would get one or two signed, and I didn’t even want to think of the best-case scenario. Which was that I would get all the books signed by Lewis Trondheim.

(That is a conscious thought I have at the moment, dear reader. To have every book on my shelf be signed. It just makes the pleasure of owning a thing also be tied in to the experience of meeting a creator, and it somehow adds a meta-story to the physical object. Anybody can buy a book, but it’s an honor to create a story around something you have bought. Is that hubris?)

The thing about NCSFest was that they were trying to emulate the European model of having the town be involved in the convention. Everything was free. Parking was free at City Hall, and shuttle buses carried you over to the pier, where all of Huntington Beach Main Street was cordoned off to traffic in favor of streetside booths. Events were held at the Huntington Beach library and the Arts Center. There were live drawing sessions organized right on the pier. The best part was everything looked so laid-back. The crowd was a mix of comic-book fans and casual tourists who were curious about what was going on. A lot of children and parents together. My favorite retailers Stuart Ng was set up, in association with Comics BD, who were hosting a bunch of signings.

Lewis Trondheim was due to arrive at the ComicsBD booth from 11:00 AM, and I was there, with my Dungeon: Zenith books. Boulet, the artist on Vol 3 (vols 5 and 6 in the European versions) was sitting next to him, and he grabbed my copy. Apparently he had never seen the English version before, and for a few nervous minutes, I thought he was making good on his claim that he wanted to keep the book. He didn’t. Instead, I got a breath-taking sketch inside.

Since this was a very informal event, the amount of people making their way to the creators could only be described as a trickle, especially that early in the morning. The majority of visitors who came up were French expats. I chatted a bit with Boulet as he was sketching, asking him what he thought of the show. “The lines in France are crazy”, he said. “I am kind of a big deal there with the blog.” He sketched a copy of his English release for me as well. Trondheim sketched on my two books, and then refilled his pen. He had some free time, and I put the Little Nothings books in front of him, saying that he did not have to sketch in them, just a signature would be enough. “I have all the time in the world”, he said. “I am here for you.”

Long story short: I bought a few more of his books from the ComicsBD store. He sketched in all of them. He drew sketches in every single one of my Dungeon books. “I am a huge fan”, I said, and with a glint in his eye, he deadpanned: “I see it”. Which made Boulet crack up.

Later, I went and found a bottle of wine at a store, and came back to the booth to hand it over to Trondheim, who was by himself. He graciously accepted, and we talked a bit about art collecting and what kind of books he read. Joann Sfar was his favorite collaborator, and he hadn’t read any American comics in ages. I told him that Dungeon Monstres vol 1 was the only volume I did not own, because it was out of print. “I can ask my publisher if they have it”, he offered. I said that I had already spoken to them in Toronto, and they apparently were sold out and did not have plans to bring it back into print. He shook his head. Apparently, there were a couple of new volumes of Dungeon he was working on, but he wasn’t sure if NBM would publish them in English.

Finally, just before I was due to leave, I asked him if he sold any art. “Yes, but it’s very expensive”, he said, laughing. “You may look on my website”. He was right, the two pages up were indeed in the five-figures, but he had a surprise for me. He took out a small portfolio filled with watercolor sketches of La Lapinot, his character that hasn’t yet been translated into English. They were all superb, and I picked one immediately, because the price was perfect too!

Standard
Comics

An Annoyance of a Jeep

(A warning: This is a story about seeking and finding a book. Like most book-finding stories on this blog, this has a happy ending)

About a decade ago, I wrote this, after buying a copy of the first oversized Fantagraphics Popeye volume, called I Yam What I Yam.

Popeye, to most people, is this wisecracking cartoony sailor who woos the awkward Olive Oyl and occasionally pops a can of spinach to knock out baddie Brutus. It comes as a surprise, when one reads the original Elsie Segar stories from the 1930s, to find out that Popeye was originally conceived as a hot-headed, muscle-bound brawler. The original character used his fists to make his way out of an argument just as casually as he went about decimating the rules of grammar while talking, his romantic life secondary to his penchant for fisticuffs.

The Segar Popeye stories hold up surprisingly well. You wouldn’t binge them, true, but unlike the staidness of the venerable Prince Valiant and Gasoline AlleyPopeye is much more rambunctious. The characters are inappropriately zany, and prone to antics that have me laughing out loud. It’s strange how Segar’s humor holds up despite our standards for comedy having changed in the last 80 years. Especially as I get older, and I find that work that tickled my insides a decade ago no longer carry the same power. Sad but true.

The Fantagraphics reprints were solid gold. Printed on stiff paper with excellent production values, each volume had a die-cut opening on the front, and was accompanied by essays from the likes of Bill Blackbeard, Rick Marschall, and Donald Phelps. Every volume had its own title, a famous Popeye-ism (or is that Segar-ism?). But my favorite design touch of all was the fact that the six volumes had the letters “P”, “O”, “P”, “E”, “Y” and “E” imprinted at the bottom of the spine. Which meant you would always shelve them left to right, the correct way, and the six books would look great together.

The six books, together.

It was annoying, therefore, that I neglected to buy Volume 5, Wha’s A Jeep, before it went out of print sometime around 2012.

I have a valid excuse — I was in the midst of a cross-continental life-reboot, and part of setting up one’s presence in a new country was the thought that I should stop with the endless materialistic pursuits that marked my twenties. I put a moratorium on book purchases as much as possible, and the newly bought iPad became my gateway to all reading material.

So when I got around to noticing that what should be spelt “POPEYE” on my shelf showed up as “POPE”, I decided to get the two missing volumes, cocksure in the assumption that prices would have probably come down, especially in the secondary market. Volume 6, called “My Li’l Sweepea” was easy enough to find, but Volume 5 was nowhere to be seen! 

Mild correction: it was to be seen, but at prices that caused volcanoes to explode on Jupiter. The book had gone out of print, and like bees who do the Waggle Dance, the listings on all online bookshops featured exorbitant numbers. Don’t take my word for it, dear reader. Go search for “Popeye” or “Segar” on Abebooks, sort by highest price. The last I checked, some acolyte of Beelzebub (and in LA, no less!) was asking for $1190. The next person on the list has a modicum of shame, and is asking for a mere $501. Looks like the free market works for some people. (Editor’s note: these are asking prices, I can’t imagine anyone buying at that price point)

Oh, did I throb and fret with torment. The books on my shelf now read POPEE, and that of course got my gut churning with the kind of indignation that is accompanied by the sound of bells and matronly voices repeating the word “shame” really loud. From the foggy recesses of my checkered past, there arose a Quest Monster, a single-minded creature that creates Ebay search filters, sends missives to all corners of the globe; and nudges book-sellers and book-buyers alike to go poke around ancient shelves. I found myself once again haunting aisles of local bookstores, a near-extinct practice that reminded me, as I stood up after having squatted for 45 minutes, that I was once a fierce and tireless Book Fiend that had fallen out of practice. Friends asked whether translations of the book were acceptable (no) or damaged copies (nope) and if I had contacted Fantagraphics about publisher’s copies (yes, and they had laughed in my face. Gently enough for me to still care about the publishing house though).

Then one fine day in August, the Quest ended. A seller on Amazon put up his “new, undamaged” copy for sale at the grand price of $50. Turns out I had a 30$ gift card from an office event, and 14$ in Amazon points. I swear I could feel the spindles on the server whirl in a symphony of mutual happiness as I clicked on the Buy button. In the back of my head, I wondered if “new, undamaged” meant the covers were barely intact, and if the seller was hiding secrets that were dark and deep. The book arrived ahead of time, and as I gingerly snapped the cardboard envelope open, I held my breath.

It was perfect. It was better than my copy of Volume 4, to be honest. It looked like it was meant to be on my bookshelf.

So what is the moral of the story, dear reader? There are several, actually. The first, of course, is that the story never ends until the series is complete. Banal, I know, but them’s the facts. But wait, wait, yes, we’re talking morals, not facts. So how about this –– consumerism is a vile and insidious parasite, slowly gnawing away at your reason for existence. You don’t really need any of this shit, you know, but somehow you are compelled to add just one more series to your shelf, and make your life feel whole.

The last and most important moral is that if you are into classic comics, it is both a fine and terrible time to be alive. There are more high quality comics in print than at any other point in human history. But, yes, you knew there was a but coming, but FOMO is real in the comics business. Books keep going out of print in a manner similar to series being released on Netflix –– which is, all the fucking time. Do you want to read Chic Young’s classic Blondie strips that IDW reprinted a few years ago? Vol 1 of 2 is out of print. Buz Sawyer by Roy Crane? Vol 2 is out of print. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat? Nearly all of it out of print. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts? The bulk of the 24-volume set is no longer available. Perilous times, friends.

Standard
Comics, Manga, Today I Learned

The Gaiman Awards

Today I learned that there is an award for comics called the Gaiman award. And contrary to what one might expect, it is not related to our favorite Wordsmith in Black.

The word ‘Gaiman’ here is an abbreviation of “Gaikoku no manga’, literally, ‘foreign comics’. This refers to comics translated from foreign work and published in Japan. For those of you who fret over what is comics and what is manga and bug-eyed-styles and all that, here you go: ‘Civil War’ translated into Japanese and published in Japan becomes manga, and can even get nominated for a manga award. You can keep your Western biases to yourself, thank you.

The list of comics nominated since the award was instituted in 2011 shows a curious mash-up of titles, including the aforementioned Marvel title; Superman: Red Son rubs shoulders with the likes of Nicholas de Crecy’s Celestial Bibendum (French), Schuiten and Peeters’ Les Cités Obscures (Belgium), Lat’s Town Boy and Kampung Boy (Malaysia), Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants. All of which make for great, solid reading — though the jury’s still out on The New 52: Shazam, which managed to make an appearance on the 2015 nomination list. (The previous sentence is vague hyperbole, the prize went to Sweden’s Sayonara September, by Åsa Ekström)

One thing to note: the titles nominated are based on translation date, and not on publication date. This causes similar confusion as the ‘Best US Edition of International Material (Asia)’ Eisner award, where classic material ends up being nominated alongside newer ones, just because they were translated the last year. In 2016, a work by Shigeru Mizuki from the 80s (Showa: A History of Japan) beat the contemporary Master Keaton and Assassination Classroom in the Eisners.Doesn’t that make it overly confusing to judge something that is fresh along with another that has been coated with the patina of time and generational acceptance?

Standard
Comics, Movies

Thoughts on Batman

bvsquad2

Batman vs Superman is out this week, and here are a couple of disorganized thoughts on the State of the Superhero.

I dislike Batman. It’s funny that I should say that about a fictional character, especially one that has brought me such joy while growing up. You guys are well aware of how much I have been into the character, and there is this element of hypocrisy that looms large over a statement like this one. But I have problems with the character, and more specifically, what has become of the the storytelling engine behind Batman.

History Lesson

This lineage of Batman “troubled man who dresses up to exorcise his demons” obviously begins with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One in the mid-1980s. But these books were one of a kind — DKR was an interpretation, not a definition of who Batman was — and it took a long time before Miller’s rage-and-angst-fueled ingredients seeped into the character’s engines. You had the pure joy of Mike Barr and Alan Davis’s short run, which ran in tandem with Year One, funnily enough; Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s vulnerable yet foreboding Batman; Doug Moench and Kelly Jones’ surreal Goth-meets-art deco incarnation; even the group-think endeavors like Knightfall and Prodigal and No Man’s Land, the messy products of their time that they were: all of these retained some amount of humanity that made you like the character likable, even relate to him, maybe, because Batman always did the right thing. But yes, elements of Miller’s work were creeping in slowly — Jason Todd, Robin #2 died at the Joker’s hands, something that Dark Knight Returns had alluded to. Making that book prescient almost made it seem like that dark future was in store for Batman, but we weren’t there yet.

bvs

It was Grant Morrison who is to blame, when you think about it. Morrison, fresh from a  career of revamping DC’s fringe characters such as Animal Man and Doom Patrol, found himself in charge of the Justice League of America in the late 90s. The JLA had their share of troubled history in that decade – editorial diktats mandated the use of second-tier characters in the team because the Big Guys were involved in soap operas of their own 1. Morrison insisted on using the main characters, and among the changes he made to the JLA status quo, the major one was this:

Batman, despite having no superpowers, was the most dangerous man alive.

Batman has it all covered.

He can take down anybody. He is the embodiment of human perfection. He has a contingency plan for everything — seriously, everything. If the universe was about to be destroyed, Batman could pull a universe-undestroying glove from his utility belt and punch the universe into being whole again.

JLA_Tower_of_Babel_TP

This particular concept found much favor among fans, myself included. Unfortunately, when combined with the climactic scene of Miller’s seminal work, people — writers, fans, the ecosystem at large — began to extrapolate the facts in a very strange way. What was a one-off sequence involving careful planning and execution suddenly became a trope in itself. Batman can beat Superman anytime, they said. There was a proliferation of stories where indeed, Batman was not only rescuing the JLA from problems that stymied all of them, he was also beating Superman almost on a yearly basis. Miller’s 2001 sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, begins with a showdown where Batman, now even older, drops a pile of rocks on an angry Kal-El, punches him with a pair of special gloves and says “Get out of my cave”. In Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s newest incarnation of the Batman, in tales of alternate realities and stray one-shots, the message remains the same: Batman can take Superman. Any time.

Batman_0363

And all of that brings us to Batfleck taking on hairline-receding Superman on the screen.

End History Lesson

At the heart of it all, along with his seeming ability to go toe-to-toe against super-humans, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, a middle-aged rich guy who uses his money to dress up and go out and punch criminals. He says “My City” without a trace of irony. He is always right. He is rude and insensitive to people around him, and over the years, this assholish behavior has been amped up to stupendous levels. He will be part of a team, but everything and everybody has to play by his rules. He has an extended family, recruiting a bunch of boys and girls, men and women as part of his war on crime, but he also insists on being a loner, incapable of having a normal human relationship with anyone around him. His intensity has been stretched to such an incredulous length that Batman the character has become a self-parody. Batman is a scary reminder of what happens when Big Money meets Mental Illness meets Misguided Intentions meets Non-scalable Implementation.Somehow, “Batman does not kill” has become an excuse to make the character as unlikable and smarmy as possible. 2

But wait, you say, isn’t punching criminals the focal point of every superhero story?

Yes, you are right. At the end of the day, superhero stories are still about grown men — and women — punching each other into submission. But hey, it has been 75 years since we have had a man putting on a suit and heading out late at night to deal with the trauma of his parents being killed in front of his eyes. You could say that problem with Batman is emblematic of my problems with superhero stories in general. To be more precise, the mainstream superhero scene, these characters that have plodded through decades of reinvention, retelling and occasional resurgence. With a character like Batman, there can only be an attempt to retell the story with a fresh angle, to rearrange the familiar pieces and give them weight depending on which pieces we are focused on. Every now and then, someone figures it’s a great idea to add another piece 3 but all it does is add chaos to an already teetering structure. Add to it the fact that DC/Marvel comics, since the 80s, have been stuck in this confusing identity crisis (pun intended) where they are unsure about whether they are a children’s medium or aimed at adults. You point out flaws in the machine, and they want you to take a deep breath and lighten up, because superheroes are for kids. At the same time, the themes they handle try to be mature, the Comics Code Authority was thrown out the door a long time ago, and any attempt at wholesomeness stopped when anal rape became a plot point 10 years ago. 4

There are of course attempts to upend the structure every now and then: by what is referred to as a reboot. Scott Snyder, who I mentioned above, is the writer working on the new Batman. It is the first time in years that the origin story has attempted to break free of the long shadow cast by Year One. Snyder calls his version Year Zero, and rather than the shadows and grime that Miller brought into his version, Year Zero has psychedelic colors and an out-there, sci-fi vibe to it that I dug quite a bit. But the 75-year old legacy cannot help but creep into the pieces that a creator adds to this new structure, and it takes very little time for the building to collapse yet again. By the time the Joker is added to the mix, in a story called ‘Death of the Family’, we have — deep breath — the Joker in Arkham Asylum with a villain called the Dollmaker “who surgically removes Joker’s face at his request and then pins it to Joker’s cell wall as a sign of his rebirth”. By the time the Joker shows up again, in “Endgame”, he has become a scientist who has come up with a new chemical isotope (called, er, ‘Ha’), and the story also “implies that he is immortal, having existed for centuries, and has developed a means to regenerate from mortal injuries…(the story also) restores the Joker’s face, and also reveals that he knows Batman’s secret identity”. Umm, okay.

Add to it the fact that Batman’s story never does have an ending. 5 He has gone from being a lone vigilante killing people as he sees fit, to a good guy working with the law, to someone who is an urban legend. Look at the origin story: Where once it was Joe Chill and Lew Moxon, one retelling made Ra’s Al Ghul serve as a catalyst; in another, it was a person named Jack Napier; yet another has the Court of Owls. What I am getting at is that: the entire enterprise of keeping a superhero’s motivations and methods relevant in our world seems to be an effort that sucks in writers and makes them spew out fan-fiction that grates against my expectations and knowledge as a rational reader. More so in terms of Batman, because writers tend to latch onto their inner anger, that part of them that wishes that they could respond to the world around them by dressing up at night and getting out to break a couple of jaws and kneecaps. 6And the worst part of it all? Nothing changes. Bruce Wayne will always go out at night and beat criminals up. Maybe he will disappear for a while, maybe there will be a new costume, maybe an unknown adversary of the past will suddenly come back in his life and upend Everything That You have Ever Known. The common storytelling engine to all superhero tales seems to be a treadmill: a tiresome, frustrating journey that goes nowhere and yet tires you out.

It therefore becomes easy for me to say that Batman — or superheroes, in general — are not for me any more. Which is a valid point, but goes against my innate approach to popular culture, which is that New is always good, and that creators in any field are getting better at what they do because they learn from the past, and can pick and choose elements that work wonderfully, and discard the things that do not make sense. But it is a problem when the past weighs so heavily on your appreciation of any future work; when in order to explain who a character is, you have to go read Wikipedia. It’s a shame when to explain or make sense of what is going on, you have to suspend your reading to understand that what you are reading may or may not be a part of the story; and that there was a story and it’s not valid any more, and what you are reading can be replaced by a completely different story.

If you are not convinced, and are framing your apologist fanboy arguments about why Batman is awesome, here’s a question for you: how many Robins have there been? What happened to them? Let me get my popcorn while you scramble for the answer.

Notes:

  1. Superman died, and came back again. Batman had his spine broken, and then it was healed. Wonder Woman was replaced, and then she came back. Green Lantern went crazy, and another Green Lantern took his place.
  2. Donald Drumpf however sounds more like a Marvel alias, right?
  3. The character of Hush is an attempt, as is the Court of Owls.
  4. For those who do not know, Identity Crisis.
  5. Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns as the last Batman story, and that went on to get its sequel 15 years later, and there is a third part out now. Neil Gaiman wrote a story called ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader’, which was Gaiman interpreting every supporting character in Batman as erudite people that knew exactly the right thing to say, just like bad fan-fiction.
  6. Not to kill anyone, of course, because Batman does not kill. But it’s perfectly fine to break a wrist and maybe an elbow too, if a guy just pointed a gun at you, or flashed a knife, or maybe a crowbar. Hmm, maybe if he even looked wrong at you, or cut you in line, or honked at your car when you were merging into his lane.
Standard
Books, Comics

The Top Ten* Superhero** Comics*** of All Time****

*       Alan Moore Homage, and a possible 11th title in this list.
**     Limited to the two mainstream companies that have copyrighted the word.
***  Which have been collected into self-contained collections referred to, but not necessarily all the time, as graphic novels.
***  Temporally located around the turn of the 20th century.

Raja Sen wanted me to list my top 10 superhero comics. I looked up a list I had done a few years ago for Men’s World magazine, and decided that nothing in it deserved to change, except for some of the accompanying text.

10
Sleeper_1_cover

Sleeper A nifty mash-up of noir intrigue and super-villainy, Sleeper is Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ story of a covert operative within the ranks of a criminal organization, whose dual life takes its toll on his moral judgement, his interpretation of right or wrong becoming skewed as he is manipulated as a pawn between the warring organization and the government. Crime fiction, except super powers are involved.This is one of the rare superhero graphic novels that blend costumed characters with gritty street-level realism and manages to make the combination work without dissolving into excessive grimness or parody.

The Brubaker/Philips team have worked on numerous collaborations, straight-up crime fiction or mash-ups with other genres – check out FataleCriminal and the new ongoing Fade-out.

9
hitmanbatman1 hitmanbatman2

Hitman – For a writer who claims to hate superheroes, Garth Ennis sure knows how to write a classic superhero title. Hitman, featuring a happy-go-lucky assassin who obtains telepathic powers and uses them to kill supervillains is a complete revelation. This overlooked gem of a comic, within a span of sixty chapters, transformed itself from an irreverent laugh riot poking fun at mainstream icons like Batman and Green Lantern into a blood-soaked tale of friendship and sacrifice.

This series also features Dogwelder, possibly the greatest superhero ever created on any medium.

Dogwelder 1

 

8
Ultimates_by_Inhuman00

Ultimates – Remember the first time Samuel L Jackson made an appearance at the end of Iron Man? That scene would never have happened without The Ultimates. Hell, nearly every bit of characterization of the characters in the Marvel movies was based on this series, a modern-day reworking of the popular Marvel supergroup The Avengers. Scottish writer Mark Millar interpreted the superhero phenomenon as a military project led by the United States army, and gave rise to a number of startling variations of familiar characters – Captain America as a duty-bound soldier trapped in the idealism of the ’40s, Giant Man as a wife-beater, Thor and his thunder-god ramblings as a sign of possible insanity, and Hulk as a sex-crazed cannibal. It could have been cheap schlock, but two things – Bryan Hitch’s magnificent cinematic artwork and Millar’s liberal use of the contemporary political climate elevates Ultimates from a Michael Bay ripoff to a tome worth of the ages.

There was a sequel (pretty good!), another (really bad!) and a bunch of other sequels (oh good lord!). They had creative names such as Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, All-New Ultimates, and Avengers vs New Ultimates. Whether you choose to read them is entirely up to you, but please don’t expect me to sympathize.

7
Kc-Marvels

Marvels/Kingdome Come The reason these two titles are tied is not because they both feature the painted art of Alex Ross. It’s because each graphic novel, one from Marvel, the other from DC, uses Ross’s art to imbue their respective universes with an amount of gravitas. While Busiek’s script for Marvels dealt with key events in the lives of the superheroes through the eyes of a photojournalist, Mark Waid wrote of an alternate future where heroism was all but dead, and it would take earth’s retired superheroes to avert the destruction of all humanity. Marvels and Kingdom Come both celebrate the iconic nature of superheroes, and you cannot help but mention both of them in the same breath.

Sometimes I get the feeling that these two series are exercises in fan-service for readers who grew up in the 60s and 70s. Other times, I marvel at the fact that long before the movie industry got their act together, Alex Ross’s art was the closest you got to seeing these characters as real people.

6
starmanhrdcvr-5
Starman  What made James Robinson and Tony Harris’s Starman so special was the way it honored the long and checkered heritage of the character ( there had been five versions of Starman over 5 decades), and at the same time showed the evolution of a novice underdog into someone worthy of taking up the family mantle. Over the course of 81 chapters, Jack Knight – the son of the original Starman of the 1940s. A hero who refuses to wear a costume because he finds super-heroics at odds with his day job, a regular joe who finds friendship in the most unlikely places and a man who travels across the universe (and through time) for his love.

According to the contract between DC and James Robinson, the character of Jack Knight cannot be used in any subsequent stories without Robinson’s explicit permission. This is one of the rare instances when a comic company’s trademarked character is reserved for exclusive use for a writer.

5
assman

All Star Superman – They said Superman was boring and unhip, too noble to be taken seriously. It took Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s epic saga to elevate this age-old superhero to the glory he rightfully deserves. All-Star Superman embraces the silly Silver Age elements of the Superman mythos – the bumbling secret identity, the curious girlfriend, the evil nemesis –  and transforms them into a poignant, engaging saga of a god-like being who sees the potential in humanity and serves as an inspiration to everyone. This twelve-part series is possibly the Superman story ever written – and drawn.

Artist Frank Quitely’s pencilled work was directly used to print the comic, without a traditional inker. The digital coloring was done by Jamie Grant under specific instructions from Quitely, which gave the comic a distinctive glow and highlighted every bit of the artist’s detailed art.

4
dd

Daredevil: Born Again  When Frank Miller, once the regular penciller for Daredevil, was invited back to work for Marvel in 1986, he crafted an elegant story of the crimefighter’s greatest defeat, and his greatest triumph. Drawn by artist David Mazzuchhelli in a sleek, minimalist style, ‘Born Again’ is a story that borrows equally from American crime fiction and Christian theology. It pits Daredevil in a no-holds-barred struggle against the Kingpin, a crime lord and arch-nemesis who discovers his secret identity and decides to destroy his reputation and his life.

Miller and Mazzuchhelli would team up again the same year for Batman: Year One, a look at Batman’s early career. Director Christopher Nolan borrowed a number of elements from Year One for his movie, Batman Begins.

3
The-Dark-Knight-Returns
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns This was Batman’s finest hour. Donning his costume after 30 years of retirement, the Dark Knight fights mutant juvenile delinquents, has a final showdown with his archnemesis the Joker, and goes up against the US government by fighting mano-a-mano with Superman. Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s story of an aged superhero’s comeback merged the cynicism of the Reagan administration and the paranoia of the Cold War with a twisted, media-centric worldview. It is one of the definitive Batman stories, an instant classic that has just gotten better and better with time, and has influenced – for good or for bad – every single Batman story that came after it.

Miller did a sequel to Dark Knight Returns in 2001, but a lot of story elements were changed post-9/11. The series was not so well-received because of its computer-generated coloring and idiosyncratic storytelling.

2
Miracleman 15

Miracleman What would it really be like if superpowered beings really walked the earth – the ways in which humanity might change, if society would ever be the same again. Alan Moore’s Miracleman answers these questions, and how! This sixteen-chapter storyline is a deconstruction of every superhuman cliche that has ever been worked into the page of a comic. By the end of his run, after you have had your brain seared by the concepts (including the harrowing visuals of destruction that follow an epic battle between Miracleman and his erstwhile protege), you will never look at another superhero comic the same way again.

The reason why Miracleman is not on many people’s radar is because it used to be out of print for nearly a decade, following legal issues about ownership of the character’s rights. Marvel comics are now reprinting the entire Moore and Gaiman run, bringing this classic series to a whole new generation.

1
Watchmen-1986-Original

Watchmen And then there’s this, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ towering achievement – a twelve-chapter Last Word on the very idea of the superhero, a story set in an alternate 1980s where Nixon still presides over the USA, and masked vigilantes walk the streets. A work so precisely structured that even today, two decades after its publication, there is still no other work in the medium that can challenge its presence on the top of any such list. All that is to be said about this series has been covered already – and if you still haven’t read it, well, shame on you.

And then there’s Before Watchmen, a series of ruthless moneygrabbing corporate comics terrible storytelling choices absolutely brain-damaged prequels that DC published 2 years ago, which were meant to convince the publishing industry that the franchise is bigger than a work of art. Needless to say, lessons were learnt and hasty retreats were beaten. Whew.

Standard