Events. We all hate them, right? Now, I don’t mean the actual, honest to god landmarks like Sandman Overture, as my colleague discussed in Hess’ House last week. No, I’m referring to the more manufactured sort. Every time Marvel or DC announces their next mega-storyline, promising that nothing will ever be the same again, we roll our eyes. We’ve heard it before, can recite the drill by heart. A bunch of stuff will happen, some it we’ll follow, some it we won’t. Tie-ins will plead that we give certain neglected titles another chance. Someone will die in the final act. Or maybe death will occur at the beginning as a trigger for the whole mess. Either way, we’ll gripe continually throughout the whole process. “Is this still going on?” “What did that issue have to do with anything?” “Boy, that banner’s ugly.” “Why do they keep doing this?” Well, because we keep buying it, right? We keep sending these events to the top of the sales charts, despite being perpetually disappointed in them.
We might affect this jaded shell of cynicism, however, deep at heart we remain optimistic in our love for comics. We truly want these events to live up to their publisher’s hype and simply be amazing. And every once in awhile our patience is rewarded, as was the case with Valiant’s Harbinger Wars.
This Wednesday begins Neil Gaiman’s Sandman prequel, Overture. As preparation, I have recently completed re-reading all of the original 75 issues. What follows is a personally-flavored guide to what may be my all-time favorite comic book title. For sake of new readers, I have kept spoilers at a minimum.
Preludes & Nocturnes (Issues #1-8): The story of Dream’s imprisonment, escape, and rebuilding of his life and realm. (Overture will tell the tale of what Dream was doing leading up to his captivity). Already in the first few issues Gaiman introduces plot elements that will cycle back around later; Dream’s confinement in itself would prove to be a major marker in his evolution as a character. Sam Keith was the original artist on this book, but I never felt it was the best fit for his style. Apparently he agreed as well, bowing out early on. Mike Dringenberg proved a better-suited collaborator. In this collection’s final chapter, “The Sound of Her Wings”, Gaiman introduced arguably his most popular creation: Dream’s sister Death. Her debut contains one of the most moving sequences in a series full of them. Finally, this volume serves as a good reminder of how closely tied to the mainline DCU Sandman was. Several characters, from John Constantine to Mister Miracle to Scarecrow, appear in these pages.
Last week’s Batwoman #24 was the last issue from the creative team of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman. Neither Williams nor Blackman created socialite Kathy Kane, who currently wears the female cowl; however, over the past two years they have become more closely identified with her than anyone else, with the possible exception of Greg Rucka. Rucka wrote a run of stories in Detective Comics which constituted the first spotlight on the new character. Working with him was Williams, wowing readers from the first page with his atmospheric pencils and dynamic page layouts. Eventually, Rucka left DC, and Batwoman’s time headlining one comics’ most prestigious titles concluded. A Batwoman solo series was announced, rescheduled, then bumped again to launch with the New 52 in September 2011.
With her solo title, Williams assumed co-credit for plotting, along with Blackman who was producing the final scripts. They picked up where Rucka had left off, delving further into the Kathy/Alice relationship, as well as giving their heroine some new adversaries. While the book fit into both the larger Bat-verse (the government’s blackmailing of Kathy into apprehending Batman) and the DCU in general (most memorably in a team-up between Batwoman and Wonder Woman), the book mostly followed its own path. Even when crossovers consumed the other Bat-books, Williams and Blackman were allowed to go on with their own narratives, uninterrupted by any editorial mandates. It’s probably not a coincidence that Batwoman was one of the few DC titles that sat out the entire Villains’ Month event.
This year was my fifth New York Con in six years (had to skip in 2012). The first year I went with an old friend of mine. We spent most of the day at the dealers’ tables, though we did take in a panel as well. We had the privilege that day of hearing Grant Morrison assure us that Final Crisis would be a thrilling, satisfying event experience. (Note that he did not promise that it would be a coherent one.) My friend has since relocated outside the city, yet I keep going on my own. This year, though, I had the pleasure of meeting up with my fellow NBC staffer, Patrick Hess for part of the day.
Some other highlights/thoughts on this year’s convention:
Talent: There is always a lot of talent present at the convention. I’ve learned to simply select a few people from the guest list and not try to meet everyone who I think is amazing in one day. (I also learned this year that showing up early really does make a difference. Artists’ Alley was much more manageable at 11 in the morning than 3 in the afternoon). The most exciting encounter for me this year was meeting Matt Kindt. Very nice guy, who, without my asking, drew a quick sketch on the front page of my Mind MGMT hardcover. I always do appreciate it when someone takes the time to add a personal touch to something they’re signing. On a couple of issues of Archer & Armstrong, Fred Van Lente wrote my name in word balloons that he attributed to a character, or in the case of #0, a rampaging dinosaur. Also met Dave Bullock, Jerome Opena and Rafael Albuquerque. On my way out, I stopped by Doug Braithwaite, so that I now have an issue of Journey into Mystery signed by him, Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans (her covers for that run were so beautiful). Speaking of Mr. Gillen, I passed him seating himself at the Avatar booth early in the day. I almost stopped by simply to compliment his polite “f*** you Frank Miller” text piece in Three, but ruled against it.
One of the many strengths of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is the varied assortment of supporting characters who populate his tales of The Dream Lord, Morpheus. Many of these individuals are just as memorable as the central character himself. Recently, I have been re-reading the series, and could not help but smile when seeing such familiar faces as Lucien or Matthew the Raven once again. Today, though, I would like to focus specifically on the person of Hob Gadling.
Hob, co-created by the fabulous artist Michael Zulli, first appears during an interlude in The Doll’s House arc. The year is 1389 and the place is a tavern in the area of London. Death has convinced her brother Dream to accompany her as she walks amongst everyday people in order to know better those for whom she and her siblings minister. Dream, who typically possesses a sullen, withdrawn temperament, appears to have rather reluctantly joined his sister. Yet he is there with her to overhear the boasting of a peasant named Hob. Hob has a simple theory, namely “death is a mug’s game.” Now, he doesn’t mean to be glib; he’s seen his share of death. He has witnessed not only plague ravage his village, but also the carnage of medieval warfare. However, while on the battlefield (or “arse deep in Burgundy mud” as Hob puts it), he had a revelation: no one needs to die. People die because they have little imagination; it’s what everyone does, so they see precious little alternative. Hob will have none of it. He’ll just continue with life, thank you very much.
As September draws to a close, it seems fitting to take stock of DC’s Villain Month initiative/gimmick. When it was originally announced, I was pretty skeptical of the whole enterprise, before becoming downright cynical when I heard about the 3D covers. That said, I did buy a few of the issues, and borrowed a large amount of them from a friend. What follows are my thoughts based on the 35, out of 52, installments that I read.
Context helps: When Villains’ Month was first announced, we knew that Forever Evil was coming, but didn’t know yet exactly what it would entail. Once that became clearer the choice of spotlighting villains did as well. One of the complaints about last year’s Zero Month was that DC interrupted their regular storylines for random, arbitrary reasons. Now, some titles were able to adapt (Demon Knights and Justice League Dark come to mind); the former fitting the flashbacks into a natural break between arcs, while the latter used the opportunity to tell the reader something about the current storyline’s baddie. For the most part, though, regardless of how well the issue was written, the vast majority had little or no need to be told at that particular time. This year, many of the stories were rooted in the specific circumstances of Forever Evil, and thus, by portraying how different characters reacted to their new status quo, moved the overall narrative forward.
The beauty of beginnings is that they can go anywhere. I can pick up the first issue of a new series and have no idea where I’ll end up twenty-two pages later. This is especially true of independent publishers such as Image, where creators sculpt their own, well, independent worlds. I cannot second guess where Forever Carlyle’s tale will turn, on account of how it must fit in with what’s happening to Jo over in Fatale. Each book can be whatever it wants to be. So, when I bought Zero #1 last week, I did not know much about the concept, just enough to add it to my pull list, despite the larger than usual number of new titles on my radar these next couple of months.
One of the reasons I singled out Zero was Ales Kot. I had been hearing a lot of praise for his work recently, and saw this new series as a good way to give him a shot. Again, though, I didn’t know exactly what to expect from his writing, except quality. And quality I did discover.
True villains, or more precisely, truly interesting villains, are not the ones who proclaim their actions with the twist of a mustache and a bellowing BAH-BAH-BAH! Most people do not set out to be evil. They might rob, exploit and/or kill others, but, they do so with the firm belief that it was the morally correct decision. Their cause is the just one, their passion no less righteous than that of their adversary, the so-called “hero.”
It has also been argued that heroes are defined by their villains, but is the opposite true as well? Does Batman illustrate who The Joker is as much as The Joker does Batman? And what happens when one half of that equation disappears? In DC’s Forever Evil event, The Crime Syndicate have invaded our Earth, seizing it as their own, while claiming that they have killed the Justice League. This background provides the setting for much of DC’s Villains’ Month: tales of how certain adversaries react to this dramatic turn of events. Given a newfound freedom, how do they exploit it?
Picking a best of this week was more difficult than I thought it would be. First of all, the second round of Villains issues from DC turned out (mostly) stronger than the first. Busiek and Anderson gave us another stellar chapter of Astro City, while the ever reliable Valiant launched a new series. Oh, and FBP picked up the pace a little bit. A solid selection of well told stories, reminding us of the variety of series we have to chose from at the moment. Picking just one becomes almost arbitrary, yet, here we go . . .
As some of you may have noticed by now, I am fan of the recent Valiant relaunch in general and Archer & Armstrong in particular. I’ve been enjoying this series from the beginning, but especially since issue 0 related Armstrong’s bittersweet reminisces about his brothers. Armstrong may be a free-living immortal, yet, he feels sorrows like the rest of us. Actually, he feels them differently, as he admits towards the end of this week’s issue.
Harbingeris a Valiant series centered on the concept of psiots, individuals with buried, latent abilities. The most powerful of these is Toyo Harada, an influential businessman who keeps his true nature secret from the world, while carefully gathering other psiots under his control. His dominance, however, is threatened by a troubled young man, Peter Stanchek, whose power may be equal to Harada’s. Their differing worldviews, along with personal hatred for each other, sparks a bitter rivalry that forms the seed of this excellent series.
Harbinger was never one of the original Valiant titles I read back in the 90s. Part of the reason may have been the inaccessibility of its earliest issues; part of it may have been that to my teenage ears the concept sounded rather reminiscent of The X-Men (young adult heroes, the next stage of human evolution, and so forth). Either way, I took a pass. So, when the relaunch was announced last year, I was less excited for Harbinger than for X-O Manowar or Archer & Armstrong, whose characters I had much fonder memories of. Yet I kept hearing how great the title was, how many fans listed it as their favorite of the new Valiant. Back in June I read the first trade, enjoyed it, but felt no rush to catch up. On Friday, I read the second trade, and can now say that I completely understand the love readers have for this title.