Comics can be strange. Rich men processing their grief by dressing up as a bat, pummeling street thugs and adopting an orphan/sidekick. Perfectly logical, right? And that is one of the more “grounded” examples. One of the sources of richness within the medium has long been the play between creators who favor naturalism versus absurdity. Coming down squarely in the latter camp is Bob Burden who dreamt up one of the most surreal series in comics’ history: Flaming Carrot Comics. Chronicling the mundane and outrageous adventures of its titular hero, Burden crafted a book that defies reason. Narratives would take sharp left-turns or, in some cases, drop-off entirely. Plot points from decades ago remain dangling to this day. Like his fellow absurdist Steve Gerber, Burden’s strengths as a storyteller did not include long-term plotting. Where Burden’s talent did shine, however, was writing and illustrating one of the funniest, most odd-ball comics ever published. Also, like Gerber, Burden’s output has retained its edge over two decades later.
“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.
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.
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.
Delays are nothing new to comic books. In the 90s, readers of From Hell quickly grew accustomed to waiting several months for the next installment of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s historical opus. It took two years for the epilogue to surface. Less drastic, though still irregular was the final year of Sandman, during which I treated the release of a new issue as an unpredictable surprise. Neil Gaiman once observed that it took him three weeks to script a single issue of Sandman, which did leave me wondering how he had much time for the myriad other projects he was pursuing. (Still wish that Sweeny Todd adaptation he was planning with Michael Zulli had happened). Miracleman had already seen delays during the final Alan Moore arc Olympus, and this continued with Gaiman’s The Golden Age. One reader even wrote in saying that the series must be the “slowest comic ever”; editorial deflected by suggesting that Moore’s Big Numbers or “any Brian Bolland project” were much more protracted). However, as readers today also know, delays are often worth the wait. Olympus and The Golden Age are both outstanding storylines which rank amongst Moore and Gaiman’s best work. Also publisher Eclipse’s financial difficulties (bankruptcy would jarringly cut short Gaiman’s second arc The Silver Age after only two issues) should be taken into account as well. Regardless, Eclipse decided to put out a limited series that would help tide over fans between The Golden and Silver Age.
Archer & Armstrong, one of comics’ great odd couples, first appeared 24 years ago. They debuted in grand 90s fashion: a zero issue which lead directly into the Unity crossover event. (In this respect they managed better than Aram’s brother Gilad whose solo series began with an event tie-in). The characters were created by Jim Shooter and Bob Layton, who shared story credits on #0 and Barry Windsor-Smith who handled the pencils. With #3 Windsor-Smith would assume writing duties along with art. Under his tenure he would refine the book into the greatest achievement of 90s era Valiant.
“I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild . . .”
-David Bowie , “Changes”
In 1982 a young British writer by the name of Alan Moore was tasked with revitalizing the dormant Marvelman property (now known as Miracleman). Over the course of the next several years, Moore would revamp Miracleman for contemporary times, explore the drive for survival and elevate the hero to the status of divinity. Coinciding with his iconic DC work of Swamp Thing, Watchmen and The Killing Joke, Miracleman remains one of Moore’s signature achievements. Moore departed the series on a breathtaking high note, in which Miracleman has become, for all intents and purpose, a god lording over humanity. And unlike Dr. Manhattan’s Enlightenment clockmaker deity, Miracleman had no qualms about employing a heavy hand to guide civilization. Truly, a new age had dawned.
If the Miracleman saga had ended there, it would have been deeply satisfying. Yet, publisher Eclipse preferred to continue the title. Once again, the series was given to an up-and-coming British scribe: Neil Gaiman. Teaming with artist Mark Buckingham, Gaiman began a six issue arc entitled The Golden Age. Despite the daunting task of following in the footsteps of Alan Moore at the height of his powers, Gaiman and Buckingham more than justify the continuation of the series. The Golden Age is a rich, deeply human take on the world. Most importantly it honors what Moore built, while still allowing Gaiman’s own voice to shine.
Pamela Isley, better known as Poison Ivy, debuted fifty years ago in the pages of Batman #181. Originally conceived by Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff as a Betty Page derived temptress the character steadily gained in prominence over time. As her personality developed so did her motives, shifting from explicitly criminal to greyer areas. As with the Batman himself, she has weathered changes in fans’ taste by successfully adapting herself to different eras. This week DC continues that tradition with the launch of a new Poison Ivy limited series. First, though, I shall revisit “Hothouse” a great Pamela tale from the post-Crisis era.