“American political discourse. The wisdom of the bumper sticker. The eloquence of a toe in the eye and a knuckle up the nostril.”
–Foolkiller #8, Steve Gerber
Ever had one of those bad days when the slightest annoyance enrages? Someone steps on your toe and suddenly they become the embodiment of everything you hate. You want to scream at them, throttle them. Many of us might do the former, while only imaging the latter. It is natural after all, steam blowing off and all that. Eventually perspective returns. However, those violent urges never entirely dissipate. Violence is woven into humans’ DNA; it is a piece of our heritage in being a member of the animal kingdom. Living in society, though, teaches how those impulses can be held in check. At the same time, culture can send quite mixed messages on the subject. Media representations of violence were one of the reoccurring concerns of writer Steve Gerber, who often satirized what he viewed as lax attitudes on the subject. His early 90s series Foolkiller, goes beyond Howard the Duck’s humorous ribbing, offering instead a searing indictment of an ailing body politic and the madman it produces. It is a compelling examination of how far down the rabbit role one man might descend when he accepts the task of cleansing the nation of fools. It is also one of Gerber’s masterpieces.
Two issues in,Animosity is proving to be one of the most original debuts of the year. The AfterShock series takes place on an Earth where animals suddenly gain sentience. Naturally, confusion leads to violence which only ratchets up the narrative’s tension. However, there is more to the title than a tale of animal resentment run amok. Writer Marguerite Bennett, along with artist Rafael De Latorre, are crafting a nuanced portrait of humans’ relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. At New York Comic Con, I had the chance to speak with Bennett about the series.
On Friday at New York Comic Con, Marvel held a panel observing the 50th Anniversary of Black Panther. Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52. Lee and Kirby were at the height of their collaboration at this moment, having just wrapped a string of stories introducing iconic figures such as the Inhumans, Galactus and Silver Surfer. The issue prior (#51) told the classic tale “This Man . . . This Monster!” Given this high level of quality, it is hardly surprising that they would not miss a beat when premiering The Big Two’s first black superhero. Two years later, Roy Thomas added the Panther to the ranks of The Avengers just in time for T’Challa to share Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ initial encounters with Ultron and The Vision.
Despite their canonical status, the NYCC panel was mostly silent on these earliest Black Panther stories. Instead, they cited the work of writer Don McGregor as the foundational Black Panther tales. In the early 70s, Marvel launched Jungle Action as a low-profile series reprinting old adventure stories from the 1950s. However, much had changed in America since the 50s and McGregor found much of these stories racially offensive. (A cursory glance at the initial covers suggests that these narratives revolved around a generic Tarzan type rescuing a fearful white woman from all sorts of rampaging jungle beasts). Eventually editorial grew tired of McGregor’s complaining and assigned him the task of writing new scripts for the series. As McGregor explained, “jungle books didn’t sell, so what did they have to lose? They could simply cancel the series and say ‘hey we tried.’” Then in the tradition of Frank Miller, Jim Starlin and other creators reviving moribund properties, McGregor refashioned Jungle Action into something iconic.
Previously I discussed the short-lived, though fascinating career of the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Ragman. For several years after Crisis reshaped the DC Universe, Ragman was absent from comic book pages. Given his failure to ever gain much traction with fans, this was hardly surprising. However, in 1991 DC decided the time was right to revisit Rory Regan, handing the assignment to a pair of established writers: Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming. Together they would radically rework aspects of co-creators Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s original concept, broadening the scope of who Ragman is without losing Ragman’s essence as the avenger of the least fortunate.
As with their political counterparts, big-name comic conventions are increasingly morphing into stage managed infomercials, at least, when it comes to generating actual “news”. Major announcements are often made in the days leading up to the con or hinted at so strongly that the actual confirmation seems after the fact. For example, at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, it was nice to have Brie Larson officially named as Marvel Studio’s Captain Marvel, yet it was hardly a shock, as its possibility had been finely debated by fans weeks earlier. One surprise, though, was the news that Arrow would be adding Ragman to its cast of characters in the upcoming season. Not simply for a one episode gig either, but a reoccurring role in the show. Now this was something. Ragman has hardly seemed to be on DC’s radar lately, let alone the writing rooms’ of the CW. Still, for longtime fans of the character, it was welcome news. While Ragman has never broken through to the forefront of popularity, he occupies his own fascinating corner of the DCU.
To observe that “war is hell” is so commonplace now, it has pretty much passed into the realm of tired cliché. It does not help that its sentiment is often cited equally by doves and hawks, the latter extolling the visceral virtue of combat. Violence is a difficult subject to represent, as even the most seemingly clear-cut anti-violence message can be twisted into something laudatory (as Stanley Kubrick was repulsed to discover with A Clockwork Orange). Indeed, there is a line of thought which states that all war films, regardless of intentions, are ultimately pro-war, as it is impossible to put combat on screen without glamorizing it. (This reviewer would extend such analysis to many supposedly “moralistic” gangster movies). For his new graphic novel Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash, Dave McKean successfully avoids many of these pitfalls. He accomplishes this by almost entirely skipping the battlefield sequences, concentrating instead of the more intimate emotional toll of warfare for the fallen and survivor alike. The result is a moving mediation on the true cost of war.
Before Grant Morrison led readers on a trip across DC’s Multiversity, before he guided Animal Man through the wastelands of Character Limbo, before DC hit the reset button of Crisis on Infinite Earths in the first place, there was Ambush Bug. In 1985, DC published a four issue mini-series starring the absurd hero of the same name co-written by Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming and illustrated by Giffen. The series is a wacky, almost surreal dance through the current state of DC continuity. Along the way, Giffen and Fleming find plenty of targets for ridicule, while at the same time celebrating the silliness that is superhero comics. Does some of it get too silly? Perhaps, yet, in the same spirit of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there is an anarchic spirit which enlivens the books, rendering nearly every page of it inspired fun.
By Fred Van Lente, Francis Portella & Andrew Dalhouse
For twenty-five issues, assorted tie-ins, a couple zero issues and an epilogue mini-series, Harbinger was one of the best books on the stands. Writer Joshua Dysart revitalized a 90s concept into a captivating and increasingly relevant series, full of compelling character work and engaged social issues. He did not skimp on the action either, or the consequences which often linger from violence. After he brought the series to a close, the characters mostly drifted to the side, while he concentrated on their antagonist Toyo Harada’s new title Imperium. Gradually, though, publisher Valiant has been bringing the Harbinger cast back into circulation. The year started with former Renegade Faith gaining her own solo series. Later this year she will rejoin her former teammates for a new Renegades title (written by Rafael Roberts who has been doing fantastic work on the current Archer & Armstrong book). This week, the young heroes of Generation Zero step-up for their first ongoing series, the debut issue of which offers a promising beginning.
For the first few years of its existence, Legends of the Dark Knight was a rather distinct title. By embracing an anthology format, it allowed for a varied group of creators to approach Batman from multiple perspectives. While some of these talents were long established names in the industry (Dennis O’Neil, Klaus Janson, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy) while others were more up-and-coming (the storyline Gothic was probably the first time I ever read Grant Morrison’s work). Issue #37 presented readers with a single issue story entitled “Mercy” written by a then little known team of British writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. While far afield from the dashing cosmic epics which would make their name nearly a decade later at Marvel, it is a low-key gem typical of the more unsung work from this title.
“Everyone whose life has ever been touched by random, tragic chance has come away from it changed . . .” –Alan Brennert
In 1989, as part of their celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of Batman, DC printed a series of testimonials about the enduring importance of The Dark Knight. These ran in the back pages of Detective Comics #598-600 as postscripts to Sam Hamm and Denys Cowan’s Blind Justice serial. Most of the remembrances covered the familiar territory of how Batman stood apart as the non-powered hero who was most relatable to the average reader. A couple stood outside the pattern, though. Stan Lee, as if he were auditioning to write a Demon series, turns in a rhyming poem which somehow manages to be silly and grandiose at the same time. Adam West reflects on the then rare privilege of playing a superhero on screen. Writer Alan Brennert took a different track. His focus is not on the tragedy of Bruce Wayne, but the ideals of the Batman. For him, the hero’s sense of justice is what makes him so popular. It is not the anger which defines him; it is how he “channel[s] that anger into something constructive.” Batman is a creature of justice, not madness.
Alan Brennert has had a long career writing for different mediums. His most prominent work has been as a producer/writer in television, where he won an Emmy for L.A. Law. He has authored several prose novels as well. His contributions to comic books are sparser, yet, significant. His handful of issues include two of the all-time great Batman tales: “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne” and “To Kill a Legend.” “Autobiography” (The Brave and the Bold #197, 1983) remains the best treatment of the long, tangled relationship between Batman and Catwoman. “To Kill a Legend” appeared in 1981 as the lead tale of Detective Comics #500. In it, Brennert delves deep into the origins of The Dark Knight, emerging with a fresh, fascinating take on the iconic character.