Leading Questions: Superman Flies Solo

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 20, 2016.


Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

SUPERMAN: Does he work better on his own like Godzilla or does his presence in a superhero-filled universe benefit him?

This reminds me of the question you asked about a month ago regarding Marvel and DC Comics different genre roots. That’s not a reprimand though because we’re swerving from the broad to the specific here. I stated that DC characters work perfectly as the center of their own unique universes there and mentioned Superman about 10 times (according to CTRL+F). So for anyone that wanted an answer to this question, but didn’t want to hear me ramble, there you go: Superman works just like Godzilla.

Anyway, the key to my argument there was based in how many DC Comics characters share DNA with the pulp hero tradition. That is most certainly true of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman. His roots have been thoroughly tied to the likes of Doc Savage, Tarzan, and John Carter in Gerard Jones’ history Men of Tomorrow. But to chalk Superman up as an amalgamation of pulp heroes is to dismiss his importance to the superhero, one of the most culturally relevant genres of today. No matter how much Siegel and Shuster may have admired the forgotten work Gladiator what they did in response to it was something truly unique.

While there are other good and valid reasons for his importance, Superman coming first is a key to his enduring popularity. He was the model before there was a model and it’s one readers have seen re-crafted every month in his own comics, in facsimiles like Captain Marvel and Apollo, and just about every other superhero comic to some degree since. You can’t pick out a superhero story today that doesn’t belong to a family tree in which Superman forms the trunk. Even as some concepts like the secret identity have become outmoded, much of his essence remains important.

It’s easy enough to say that his early popularity and invention of the genre show that he functions perfectly well on his own. And you would be right. It’s the same thing you see with Godzilla, both in the original film from 1954 andShin Godzilla, the best remake of that origin to date. In the same way Superman gave us the superhero story, Godzilla delivered the kaiju story fully formed. In both of their earliest appearances you can find almost everything that is important to a much broader set of future stories already being done exceedingly well.

While you can never deny the constant evolution of art and how so many different sources influence each new creation… Well, you still don’t tell Robert Johnson how to play the blues or Humphrey Bogart how to play a hound dog or Superman how to save the day. What these sorts of creators and creations did were so utterly unique and important that they stand apart and cannot be improved upon through means of addition.

Even in the decades following Superman’s creation when other creators, most importantly Curt Swan, populated an entire Superman family to surround the character, they were all iterations on the Superman idea. Whether we’re talking Supergirl or Beppo the Super Monkey, these are characters who all essentially pose a “what if” question to Superman. Supergirl has taken on a story and life that is all her own in preceding decades, but it stems from an origin of “What is Superman was a girl?”

When you look at the Superman family, you’ll also notice that many of the most famous characters don’t have a name that starts with “Super-”. Instead, you’ll find that Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and Lex Luthor form the core of his supporting cast and they are all very human. While providing some animals or family members who could also fly and lift heavy objects offered fodder for stories, the heart of Superman’s best tales has never relied on there being other superheroes around him. That aspect of his family is about as essential as the various shades of Kryptonite, which is to say fun, but superfluous.

And here’s where I make the leap between Superman not requiring other superheroes to be the best version of the character to stating why the best version of the character exists in a relative vacuum. It’s not just that Siegel and Shuster’s creation can stand on his own well, it’s that he has never needed anything more.

Consider the best Superman comics. How many of them involve a team or shared universe? All-Star Superman,Secret Identity, “The Last Days of Superman”, It’s a Bird, and Birthright are all as close as you come to universal standards. In each of these comics Superman exists as the sole superhero or close to it. In two of them, Secret Identity and It’s a Bird, he’s not even a real superhero, but a fictional idea so powerful it is infused in the real world.

Of course, that list is obviously a bit biased. There are some truly great Superman stories that do feature other popular leads. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, “For the Man Who Has Everything”, and Red Sonare all widely praised as well and contain the concept of the DC shared universe. Ask yourself whether any of these stories could exist without the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern and you might be surprised though.

Let’s take Red Son, for instance. This story features all of those Justice League members I just mentioned, but what does it have to say about any of them? Ultimately Batman is a suicidal prop used to explore paranoia and terrorism in the face of an authoritarian government. Wonder Woman is used similarly to represent Superman’s sacrifice and alternative utopian ideals. Hal Jordan is even more of a tool than normal, a two-dimensional prop for Lex Luthor. While you can see their roles rooted in how readers might know each of them, none of them enhance the story by providing Superman additional superheroes to interact with. They’re merely the most obvious means of presenting an alternative idea (or threat).

Superman isn’t more interesting in that story because he has to square off against Batman or because of how he fights alongside Wonder Woman; he is more interesting because of how he interacts with the ideas they represent. He doesn’t need other superheroes in this story or any other in order to enhance his identity or the themes he represents. That sort of logic follows the same course in which his incredible power is his defining characteristic. Sure, you can wonder about whether Superman could beat up a squadron of Green Lanterns, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the character.

Like other beloved figures with incredible power, wisdom, and compassion in literature (e.g. Jesus and The Buddha) his stories aren’t about what he can do, but what he chooses to do and how it impacts the world around him. Whether he’s interacting with Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, or Lex Luthor, what is most fascinating is how he responds to human beings and how they respond to him.

That’s probably why the true supporting cast of Superman stories is entirely composed of non-superpowered people who have remained in those roles for so long. Through all of his iterations Lex Luthor has represented the foibles of man and our obsession with power. Lois has been the partner who provided a more human side to a godlike being. Perry and the Kents offer the role of mentors and guardians. Jimmy is the pal who reaches greatness by working with Superman. Superman’s presence shapes the lives of all these people and reveals their importance as archetypes.

You can’t make Superman more interesting by adding a pantheon of gods around him because he’s already the complete package when it comes to moral figures. That concept of a pantheon is certainly great on its own, but it can exist entirely independent of Superman. There’s nothing about the Justice League that requires Superman. On the other hand, Metropolis, the Daily Planet, and Smallville are all things that require this one figure to become iconic.

Superman isn’t at his best when teamed up with Batman or any of his other peers. It’s fun to contrast those characters and see them play off of one another, but those comparisons don’t reveal anything that wasn’t clear before. Superman is iconic when he’s interacting with us. Whether it’s with any of his most iconic human relationships or simply with a girl named Regan for a single page, Superman interacting with humanity is what exposes the essence of his character.

No matter how much fun it may be to see him punch out villains with other costumed folks, you’ll never know why Superman matters until you see him as one of us.

Posted in Comics, Comics Bulletin, Critical Analysis | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leading Questions: I Hope Teen Superheroes Die Before They Get Old

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 13, 2016.


Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Do new teen characters in superhero comics actually have trouble sticking around?

You know what game I love playing, Mark? Softball. It’s fun to do with coworkers and friends. There’s not too much pressure and keeping score is easy. You can just focus on knocking that over-sized ball as far as you possibly can. So I want to say thank you for pitching me this particular softball to which we both already know the answer.

There’s a real Chicken Little mentality when it comes to revamping superhero comics these days. Each failure is seen as being indicative of some step towards the obsolescence or end of the industry. And, to be entirely fair, both the American comics market and superhero genre feature some pretty spectacular failures and obsolete components. Those are things we talk about here quite a bit though and are interwoven into the market in complex and interesting ways. You can observe those on the macro-level, but not so much on the micro. Typically, when things are unpopular or fall flat on their face it’s a confluence of a lot of things, not one easy problem.

So when you hear someone talking about how teen superheroes aren’t very popular, it tends to lead to a list of reasons in how this means the end of the market. There’s discussion of how young people don’t read comics, how new characters don’t catch on, and how they just don’t build ‘em like they used to. Except all of these ideas are bad and people who tout them should feel bad.

I don’t mean to be dismissive, but actually I do. So here we are.

Yes, American superhero comics are not as popular as they were when they first appeared at the start of the Golden Age, or when Marvel Comics hit it big in the late 60s, or during the boom-and-bust cycle of the early 90s. None of that is a problem of quality though. It’s an issue of markets and decades-long trends that I don’t want to get into because we do that more than enough already in this column. But if you want to hold up a random mix of what Marvel is publishing today and tell me it isn’t as good as what they were publishing two decades ago, make sure my drink is down because I’ll perform a spit take. While there are certainly plenty of duds, Marvel is regularly producing a wide-array of well-produced content from talented creators. Rebirth can eat its heart out because nothing in it is punching on the same level as The Vision, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, or Silver Surfer. DC may be more consistent, but their competition is swinging for the fences.

And why am I focusing on Marvel? Because they are doing a lot of work to create new teen superheroes (and we are talking superheroes, so it’s mostly these two). Just check out that new Champions book and everyone that is in it.

First off, Ms. Marvel. Let me repeat myself, Ms. Marvel: character find of the decade for this publisher. Anyone who is reading her title can tell you it has not dropped in quality from day one. It is consistently funny, engaging, heartfelt, and a whole slue of other positive adjectives. It is the best teen superhero book around and it sells well. We also know that it sells very well in digital, just not exactly how well. Readers have really gravitated towards this character and she has certainly generated some new ones. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see so many young women at comic conventions dressed like Kamala or speaking with high schoolers who really relate to her struggles. Well, I can, but I don’t want to get sappy and start rambling. It’s really exciting though.

The same thing goes for one Mr. Miles Morales. I still remember introducing a young man to this character at a superhero run in my hometown a few years ago and how his face lit up. Miles has stuck around to as a new mainstay of the Marvel Universe with his own title and a featured appearance in many recent events. He’s a big deal and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Keep going through that team. You’ve got Amadeus Cho as The Totally Awesome Hulk. While the green skin is new, this guy has been loved since he started teaming up with Hercules. You’ve got Viv, daughter of The Vision, from what is hands down the best Marvel series of 2016. If the writers of The Champions don’t transform her into THE character find of the book, that’s on them and they should feel terrible about it. There are others too, but I think you’re catching my point.

Marvel is producing a lot of teen superheroes, new teen superheroes, these days and they are landing very well. I don’t want to get into numbers here. First of all, they’re boring and take time. Nobody wants me to make graphs. Second of all, those graphs would be bullshit anyway. We could definitely use Diamond numbers, but that’s a fucking awful way to look at comics trends. The amount of data not included in those essentially makes analysis of them worthless outside of the very specific market they measure. It’s equally useful to talk just observations as it is to try and examine those sales charts, so let’s just do the former.

The fact that both Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales have held down solo titles for as long as they have speaks volumes. They may be legacy characters to differing degrees, but Ms. Marvel certainly seems to do a hell of a lot better than her predecessor Captain Marvel. She’s certainly more likeable. In the meanwhile, Miles sells well, albeit not as well as the most certainly a grown-ass man Peter Parker. But comparing a new invention to one of the iconic superheroes ever created is a super shitty metric.

And sure, Sam Alexander as Nova has had some trouble sticking, but when has a Nova book ever blew up the charts? Comparing any of these characters to the popularity of their predecessors or teen books from previous eras is some silly shit. There’s a huge encampment of fans reading these capes book who just want the characters they already know, so if you’re going to compare their success to anything, it should be to other new characters. When you do that, I think the thing that becomes clear is that teens fare far better than adult superheroes. Even someone like Squirrel Girl, who isn’t quite old enough to drink, or Moon Girl, who isn’t quite a teen yet, seem to create far more buzz than the newest grown-ass man or woman flying around.

At the end of the day, success is all about metrics. If you really want to measure new teen superheroes to the success of characters invented 50 or 20 years ago, be my guest. I’d rather discuss their success compared to the market that exists today. When you look at the current state of the industry, I’d say these Champions and others are doing very well. Some spark interest among older fans, but more often they seem to hit with a younger crowd. I’m not only speaking of the illustrious and rare “new reader”, but the next generation of comics bloggers and fans that we’ve surrounded ourselves with here at Comics Bulletin.

When I speak with people brand new to comics writing or reading, I often discover they’re big fans of folks like Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales, as well as series like Gotham Academy that feature young protagonists. These seem to be the connective tissue in that non-typical audience. It’s rare that I’ll hear someone in that group talk up Amazing Spider-Man, but Miles is damn cool.

If anything, what that says to me is that these new teens have a better shot at sticking around than some of their B- and C-list elders. Sure, we’ll never see Peter Parker disappear entirely, but the same can’t be said of Booster Gold or Drax. Assuming new readers actually stick around, then these Champions and their age-based cohorts stand a real shot of being the A-list Avengers of tomorrow.

Posted in Comic Trends, Comics, Comics Bulletin | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Box Brown Discusses Tetris and Gaming as a Part of Life

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 12, 2016.


Box Brown is one of the most exciting cartoonists working comics today. In addition to establishing the Retrofit Comics line, he has continued to push the medium with a diverse array of stories. Two years ago he appeared on many “Best Of” lists for his first historical graphic novel Andre the Giant. Now he is returning with another history,Tetris: The Games People Play. While it focuses on the titular games creation, rise to popularity, and the intricate business dealings behind it all, it also details a brief history of the concept of gaming and the Nintendo corporation.

Comics Bulletin Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett had the opportunity to read Tetris before its publication this week and discuss the work with Brown at New York Comic-Con. Brown was full of insight both on the story itself and the nature of non-fictional narratives. Tetris is available as of today in comic and book stores everywhere.

Chase Magnett: Tetris is the second time that you’ve written a history in this format, following Andre the Giant. What is it about histories that has led you to focus on them in comics?

Box Brown: I’m drawn to nonfiction. A lot of my stuff is influenced by documentary film. If I was a different kind of artist, I would be a documentarian. I also do fiction work and I think that helps to inform the nonfiction because you’re figuring out what stories are, how to tell them, and what the ups and downs are. You have to know about storytelling to make a nonfiction book interesting.

You’ve seen The Wrestler, right? I thought the documentary about Jake “the Snake” Roberts is better than that movie because it’s the real deal. It’s the actual thing. I’m drawn to that.

Magnett: Tetris shows an incredible amount of research considering how far it goes back in time and the many, many narratives it includes. How much research do you conduct before you actually start to plan your story?

Brown: It doesn’t feel like a lot of work because when you’re doing that type of research you’re trying to look up anything about it. You want to get the concept of the story together. I found with the Tetris story there’s really only so much about it and a lot of it refers back to the same sources. You have to check out those things and try to talk to the people that are around.

But I also had to realize that this is Tetris through my lense. However I feel about it is how it’s going to happen. As hard as I try to be impartial, opinions still come through. When you’re telling a story, the thing that makes it a story worth telling are what you find interesting. It’s like when you’re telling a story to a friend, you’re highlighting the interesting parts. Lots of other things happened that day, but you know the interesting parts. A lot of times with these comics it’s finding the narrative in these seemingly random events.

Magnett: So what was it about the narrative to Tetris that leaped out at you as being interesting?

Brown: I saw an old BBC documentary about Tetris, and this is how I decide things would make a good comic. When I start stumbling across things and reading more, I tell my wife and friends about it. All of the sudden whenever I see something new, I’ll start to say, “Didn’t you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, Tetris!” When I’m doing that, I know the story is interesting and something worth telling.

The other interesting thing about it and the reason it’s a story that took a long time to get out is the timing. If you tried to put out a story about Nintendo or Tetris contemporaneously, the view people had of computers then was so different. It was a poisoning, zombie ruining our children’s lives. It’s like the show Halt and Catch Fire about the early days of computing. If that came out at the time, no one would understand it. Nobody had a large body of knowledge about how computers worked and it would be all jargon. Because computers and technology are such a large part of our lives now, we can look back at these events with knowledge of what it’s about. Whereas, in the 80s and early 90s, people weren’t aware of what these things were and how they worked.

Magnett: That sort of context is really important to understanding a historical narrative. In Tetris you go way back and pull in the history of gaming and the foundation of Nintendo before the 20th Century. What made you decide those were necessary elements of context to tell the Tetris story?

Brown: I wanted to go back to the beginning of time. People tend to look at video games as a modern phenomenon, but gaming is so essential to the human experience. It’s something we did as cavemen. If you consider it as an artform, then you can trace it back to early cave painting. If you think of games as sports, people have been having foot races and wrestling forever. Technology is new, but the idea of gaming has been around forever. It’s a human phenomenon. Everybody does it, whether they want to admit it or not. It satisfies something in us as humans. I also wanted to go back because that’s also the way I think about stuff.

Magnett: That section reminded me of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in that he’s making his specific topic universal. Whether or not you consider yourself a comics fan, he shows how it connects to your life and history in order to justify interest and study. Were you trying to do that for gaming and gamers?

Brown: I don’t know if I was thinking about it in demographic terms. I was definitely going at this and Andre the Giant with an awareness that pro wrestling and video games carry a stigma. In case any of those people picked up the book, I wanted to sway them that this was an art form and important to humanity. I feel that way about comics too. Everytime I make a comic I’m trying to prove to somebody out there that this comic isn’t what you think comics are. The people out there who don’t read comics because they see them as one specific thing — I want them to know comics are a medium just like movies and can tell any type of story. People are comics fans even if they don’t know it yet.

Magnett: Looking at both Tetris and Andre, and that they’re presented in comics, it seems like you’re fascinated with these mediums that are thought to be low or outsider art. Is there a reason you’re attracted to these modes of entertainment and storytelling?

Brown: Probably. Going back to when I was in high school, before The Rock and Stone Cold [Steve Austin], wrestling was garbage in the 90s. Nobody watched it and I watched it every week, but would be embarrassed to tell my friends about it. I think that’s bad. If I was back in high school now, I would be like, “I don’t care what you say. Wrestling is fucking awesome. And it’s awesome for these reasons.”

It’s not just that I think it’s cool; it’s a specific and interesting type of art. The people who do it are artists and I consider them brethren. I got into comics late in life, didn’t start drawing until I was 26. When I look back I wonder why wasn’t I doing this and it’s because I didn’t think it was something acceptable. I just wish I could go back and never stop drawing when I was a kid. You start thinking this is something kids do when you’re young and it’s not a worthwhile thing, but it is. I constantly feel like trying to get that message across to people so that if the young Box Brown of today can read it, it will help hold themselves up and support their passion and creativity.

Magnett: As someone who came into cartooning later in life and has developed a unique style you have a knack for boiling things down to their essential forms and geometric shapes that combines the concept of this game [really well]. Do you consider how your approach meshes with a story when considering something like Tetris?

Brown: That was totally accidental. Before I started on Tetris, I was really trying to push that geometric style. So much of my comics were just rulers everywhere. It just happened to work out and be a good fit. I can really only draw comics in one way.

For me it’s more about the subject matter. Let’s say I want to do a book about bicycles, which are notoriously difficult to draw. If I was really into the story, I wouldn’t shy away from it. I would just figure out how to draw bicycles. When you’re first getting started, you have to let the story dictate what you’re going to draw. You don’t ever want to think that you’ll change the story because it’s annoying to draw cars. If it fits, you got to put it in there and force yourself to draw those cars.

Magnett: Choosing what to draw with a history is interesting because there’s so much in existence surrounding a subject like Tetris. How do you go about choosing what’s in and what’s out and how much space everything receives?

Brown: I did do a rough draft focusing on the things I think are interesting. Then I have an editor and other people who help me read through my work and figure out if there are problems with flow. Sometimes I will breeze over something too. I always want them to read it like the everyman, assuming they know nothing about the topic. Everybody knows Tetris, but some kids haven’t played it. You have to get all of the essential information there just so they know what you’re talking about. I’m much more concerned with being clear than anything else.

Magnett: There’s a specific point in the story I want to address including, toward the end of the book there is a family annihilation and it comes out of left field in the narrative just as it seems to have in life. When you come across something like that which is so devastating and shocking, but also important to the history, how do you make it part of the story?

Brown: I really didn’t know what to do, but then I started to think about what the themes are in this book. One of the main themes of the book is the effect capitalism can have on a person. This is an example of somebody who made some sort of money, but he didn’t start off this way. They were citizens of the Soviet Union with no concern for this, then he became involved with big business, and it ended badly for him.

I wanted to keep that in there, not only because it would be impossible to ignore, but it’s an extreme example of Notorious B.I.G. saying “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” You see success as a dream, but it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Look at so many lottery winners and you see how often bad things happen.

It was difficult to write about. I had to do some research on family annihilators, and what psychologists and psychiatrists have to say about them. It’s really sad, but what else can you do?

Magnett: The ways in which Tetris reflects capitalism as a modern system, both for good and ill, was something I found very surprising. Do you ever find yourself surprised from the themes that emerge as you craft a nonfiction narrative?

Brown: Definitely. I usually start off with a central character and I’m optimistic by nature. So I look at these people as being a generally good guy, just like me. I put myself in that role and ask, “How would I feel about this? What would I think about this?” Then you find out what you find out and put yourself in the head of the character to see how they react in these situations.

I’m not super well versed in business and how these things work, but it always seemed very cut throat to me. That’s something I wanted to highlight. You have these high, lofty goals to make literature. When it comes to capitalism and business, it’s just cold, hard facts.

Magnett: Your characters in Tetris are real people, some of whom are still alive. Whenever you introduce a new character you devote an entire page to a profile photo and very brief biography. What’s the purpose of devoting that much space to each person?

Brown: There are so many different characters and I’m not really used to working with an ensemble cast. I typically have one main character and everyone else is secondary, but this one had a lot of main characters. One of the first things I did when working on the book was to draw a huge family tree of all the characters and how they were connected to one another. It was really helpful for me, but not something for the book.

When I went into editorial, they told me it’s hard to keep all of these people straight. So that’s the method I used to make sure readers understand who these people are. That’s a big part of the story: understanding all of these individual personalities involved in this crazy thing.

Magnett: That tree dates all of the way back to the foundation of Nintendo and how its early success actually stemmed from external gambling and organized crime. It shows how chaotic the entire story is and how often seemingly unrelated elements create big changes in life.

Brown: You get a piece at random and you have to play it on whatever landscape is in front of you in order to line things up the right way.

Posted in Comics, Comics Bulletin, Creator Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Leading Questions: Forgetting the Past

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 10, 2016.


Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

How do you reconcile a character’s portrayal as a certain icon when it doesn’t seem to bear out with their origins/history?

I’m not going to lie to you, Mark. This week I want to try and get right to the meat of the matter, which we both know isn’t my strong suit. However, I can see New York Comic Con looming along with a bunch of responsibilities that need to be addressed before I fly out. So I’m coming at you hard and fast this time. Hold onto your butts.

This is a superhero question. We can talk about long-lasting characters from other media, especially prose, but those creations can’t approach the breadth or depth of how characters in the superhero genre have been reinterpreted. Whether you take a look at someone like Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Hyde, they’ve centered around the same themes since their inception more than a decade ago. Even when they pop up in comics like Planetary orLeague of Extraordinary Gentlemen, respectively, you can see how they dial back to the original author’s intent.

Then you take a look at a lot of characters in superhero comics and wind up scratching your head. There are a lot of really nit-picky examples, but I’m going to go big and broad with one of the most valuable characters from those too charitably of named publishers, “The Big Two”. In this instance, the characters I most want to pick on are a couple we’ve drug through the ringer before: Spider-Man and Batman.

Let’s start with Spider-Man, specifically those first 38 issues, 2 annuals, and Amazing Fantasy #15. This is where Steve Ditko with the assistance of Stan Lee created Spider-Man. Before you jump on me for reducing Stan’s contributions, they’re there, but let’s not pretend they’re equal to Ditko’s. Everything we’ve discovered in Ditko’s interviews, later work, and corroborated stories helps supports the narrative that he was the primary plotter, designer, and all-around creator. It’s generally accepted that as his relationship with Marvel grew more strained he didn’t even go in for the “Marvel method” of creating comics. He just drew the pages at the end of his time withAmazing Spider-Man and shipped them in; no discussion was had.

You may be thinking that Spider-Man’s core themes have stayed largely intact, and you wouldn’t be terribly wrong. The whole bit about “with great power must also come great responsibility” has stuck. The idea of this as a story about growing up has stayed, even when Peter Parker is a grown ass man. The themes of a never-ending struggle with your relationship to the world and those around you have stuck. All of the important stuff is there, but the stories haven’t been told in the way Ditko imagined them since he left.

While the character is recognizable, the tone is absolutely not. As soon as Ditko left his long, spindly lines and strange angles were replaced by the romance art of John Romita. The plotting skewed towards pure soap opera, connecting all of the characters in the book into a tangled web. In fact, one of the reasons Ditko left was over a key disagreement with Lee who wanted to make the Green Goblin, Norman Osborn. Ditko thought this was contrived and did not reflect the world he wanted to see Peter struggling with. Instead of finding a random rival who almost destroys his life, Peter would now be drawn into a more complex narrative within his own circle of friends and family.

You can argue the merits of what’s the better story, but either way only one of these fits the stories being told inAmazing Spider-Man. The random encounters and conflicts of responsibility in a complex and unjust world were upheld by the seemingly bizarre proliferation of Spider-Man rogues. After Ditko left, we wound up with stories where Doc Ock would bone Aunt May, and that sort of overspun soap opera has been a defining characteristic of the Spider-Man ever since.

Batman on the other hand is someone whose core thematics have been grafted onto him after the fact. As long as I’m on a tear about creators and classic characters, when we discuss Batman we’re primarily talking about Bill Finger. Bob Kane can be included in the same manner as Jerry Robinson and other core contributors, but that garbage human being didn’t create Batman by divine providence or any other means. He stole someone else’s ideas. Just in case I’m not being clear:

Fuck. Bob. Kane.

Alright, so Batman starts out as a gun-wielding vigilante in the mode of pulp heroes like The Shadow. He has a tragic origin that encourages him to pick up a schtick and go stop criminals by any means necessary. And that tragic origin isn’t really a big part of his early stories. It’s pretty much comparable to the Krypton stuff in early Superman stories, meaning it’s somewhere between filler and non-existent. Yet when you think about Batman today or ask passersby about him, what comes up?

Are there pearls flashing through your mind’s eye right now? Don’t lie. I know there are.

It’s the angst and the suffering and the unending quest for justice and/or vengeance. These are the defining characteristics of one of the most recognizable characters in the world. Yet they only nominally stem from its creator Bill Finger and other early collaborators. If we were to define Batman by those origins, he would be much more similar to The Shadow and Doc Savage in nature. The emphasis there is on his adventures and all of those wonderful toys, while the heavy stuff comes much, much later.

You can point to a lot of the 70s work for how Batman was reimagined in this direction, but I think the pivotal creator in this conversation will always be Frank Miller. In the course of two four-issue stories, he provided a definition for Batman that has been the most significant influence on the character in comics, cartoons, and film ever since. And Miller did all of this more than 40 years after Bill Finger drew Batman for the first time. Thus we have a character who has only found its most iconic form in the second of its existence, albeit based in details from much earlier.

So, how do we reconcile this? I’m going to answer your question with a question because I’m a jerk like that… Must we reconcile this?

Look at what I just did above, ever so briefly. I examined (again, ever so briefly) how Finger and Ditko’s visions for their characters were changed after they no longer had control of them. But that means we can recognize what was the original and what became the iconic  or more widely known, at least. As readers and fans, we can tease these differences out to see how each artist who touches these characters provides a bit of their own DNA to them.

Sometimes that DNA becomes a central part of the character’s identity moving forward, like what Miller and Romita added. Other times it is a re-interpretation of what has come before, a genetic mutation, like in the work of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo on Batman, which is so clearly influenced by Miller. In any case, it’s possible to discuss these different iterations and what they mean individually, which makes for an excellent conversation.

The only time it becomes a problem is when we start to look at these characters as monuments, figures crafted from stone around core, immutable characteristics. That’s a problem because it’s absolute bullshit. When these characters were determined to be owned by much larger entities at their conception, and then those entities sought to divorce them from their creators in every meaningful way, they lost anything that could be defined as a true core. There are our personal versions and the most recognizable versions and the versions put forth by their originators, but there’s really no true version at this point.

When we talk Batman, Spider-Man, or even Superman (the superhero icon of icons!), we have to always remember to be specific, or that we are discussing a specific version at the very least. We can talk Finger’s or Miller’s or Snyder’s Batman, but they’re all different Batmen. Of course, that leaves a whole discussion about the ethics of how this conversation came to be sitting out there, but that’s not the question this week.

For the question this week, my answer is this: Enjoy the variety and don’t believe there’s one true version of characters from this bizarre and disreputable history of superhero comics. You’ll be much happier that way.

Posted in Comics, Critical Analysis, Industry Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leading Questions: Burn It All Down, But Save Punpun

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 29, 2016.


Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

What’s the last book that made you want to burn the rest of your comics collection after reading it?

It is incredibly convenient that I’m sitting at my newly organized and cleaned desk right now because the answer to that question is sitting directly in my line of sight. All I have here is a glass wine, Spider-Man coaster (featuring uncredited John Romita artwork), lamp, some textbooks, and the third Goodnight Punpun. If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, the only thing these textbooks make me want to light on fire is my own head.

I wrote about Goodnight Punpun for our esteemed manga editor, J.A. Micheline, just over a month ago. If you didn’t give that analysis of the first volume a read, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s easily one of my favorite things I’ve written all year. That comes largely from my unmitigated admiration for the work. I’m reticent to rank this in a list of what I’ve read this year or the past few because sticking a number on the comic diminishes its impact somewhat.

Inio Asano is one of the most consistently stunning creators working in the comics medium today, and I’ve been drawn to his work since first discovering it in the pages of Nijigahara Holograph. From Solanin to A Girl on the Shoreto What A Wonderful World, every comic he has translated to English I’ve sought out. But even within the context of this fantastic bibliography, Goodnight Punpun leaps out to me as being something truly special, even less than halfway to completion in English.

It’s a haunting story of childhood and adolescent angst that grows far beyond the realm of these specific periods of life. The loneliness, fear, and inability to connect that Punpun and those around him confront are universal. Asano examines the nature of co-existence and the pursuit of happiness in a life that is only slightly exaggerated. What is most striking about the comic is how Asano puts the form to use though. His construction of Punpun’s family as absurd, bird-like drawings surrounded by hyper-realistic characters and backgrounds is fascinating. There are a variety of other visual devices and “tricks” at play, but this is the most notable one that allows readers to be absorbed in the life of this one young man.

I could go on for hours about all of the reasons I love Goodnight Punpun, but I already have and in a far better edited format. Seriously, here’s the link again. If you’re interested in comics, stories about the loneliness of the human condition, or a story capable of inducing both laughter and tears in just a few pages, this is the book for you. So I’ll leave that at that. But there is one thing I want to examine a bit more about your question…

You didn’t just say the last book I loved in this question; you said the last book that made me want to light the rest of my comics on first after reading it. That’s some very strong phrasing. You’ve seen my library and know that sort of action might be comparable to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern. It’s obviously hyperbole, but represents a very real reaction and one that you don’t come across too often.

While you might not always jump immediately to fire, there is an urge when setting down a comic that’s not just great, but one that hits you in a very special way to walk away from everything else. It’s the acknowledgement that nothing else could fit inside your head or heart in that moment, so you might as well toss it all out. You question how anything else could intrude on the experience you’re having in that moment. That’s a precious moment.

I think that when you have this sort of reaction to a comic (or any piece of art) it represents two things. First of all, it’s a testament to craft. No matter how enjoyable you might find some of the films featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000, loving something ironically comes with an inherent understanding that it is to be compared to other things. It relies on the context of better quality and that undermines its ability to consume you for even a brief moment. To have something make you want to ignore everything else, it has to be executed superbly.

Note that the word is superbly, not perfectly. Claiming something as perfect is begging for trouble. However, pointing to the refinement and precision in a superb piece is a much easier hill to climb (and die upon, if necessary). While there are criticisms of Asano and Goodnight Punpun, there’s no contesting that his artwork is masterful, that he is pushing the boundaries of manga, and that his stories touch upon deep, meaningful themes. It is a comic that can fill your head because it is filled with the work and thought of a true craftsman and artist.

The second thing is a bit more elusive, it’s a deep down connection between art and audience. That’s the sort of thing you can’t argue or convince someone else of; it’s entirely personal. While I adore something like Mr. Hyde inLeague of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you might just see him as interesting. We can discuss how he is drawn, what he represents, and how he relates to the themes of the comic. But I can’t make you feel about that one character like I do.

While I can pass you Goodnight Punpun and confidently say it’s a great comic that you will appreciate, I cannot tell you that you’ll love it like I do or even necessarily love it at all. The ways I connect to this comic are unique to me. How I see myself or my world in the characters is based on my own experiences. Beyond that there’s an even more difficult to describe element of taste that’s shaped by decades of experiences both in and out of comics. The whys and wherefores of my response to Goodnight Punpun may be mysterious to even me. When I began laughing uncontrollably at my local comic shop upon reading about Punpun’s first wet dream, that came from a place deeper than my mind, it came from my gut.

So here’s what I’m planning to do when I send this to you for edits. I’m going to pick up this glass of wine andGoodnight Punpun, and head to my couch. There’s a good chance that in the next hour I’ll laugh, cry, and occasionally holler at my fiancée about a particular moment that’s hitting me in a peculiar way. When I’m done with it, I’ll head towards bed and stay up far too late thinking about it. That’s because it’s a comic that is far too poignant to me to even consider glancing in my library again after reading it. For its own blend of reasons, it’s a perfect comic to me and demands my undivided attention.

Placed in anyone else’s hands, it might just be considered good or great. Yet it’s the sort of art that makes me remember why I spend so much of my life talking about art. It causes me to reflect on the craft within its pages and on my own life. If I was feeling particularly pretentious, I’d go so far as to say that it ploughs and harrows my soul, preparing me for death. And while I might want to recommend it for those reasons, there’s a better take away to be had.

If you’re interested enough in comics to have read all of this rambling so far, you’ve undoubtedly found a few comics like this. When you come across another one, be sure to hear that voice in your head telling you to burn everything else. Get off of the internet, ditch your reading stack, and let that comic settle. Enjoy the moments of reading that book and as much time as you can afterward simply absorbing it. That comic and that time are precious.

Posted in Comics, Comics Bulletin, Social Commentary | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Exclusive Preview: X-O Manowar #50

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 26, 2016.


After more than four years, X-O Manowar arrives at its epic conclusion this Wednesday, September 28th. X-O Manowar #50 is not only a monumental issue for the series, but its publisher and writer as well. The series is the last of the four ongoing titles that relaunched the Valiant universe in the summer of 2012 and has been written by Robert Venditti since its debut. The story has spanned space and time in a cohesive narrative building to this finale. Now as this centerpiece of Valiant Entertainment prepares to conclude, it is surrounded by a thriving superhero brand focused on cultivating stories driven by characters and creators. While X-O Manowar #50 might seem bittersweet to longtime fans, it’s a testament to the strengths of the Valiant line.

Comics Bulletin is pleased to bring you an exclusive preview of this momentous comic book. Be aware that there is at least one pivotal moment in the pages below and you will be forced to wait until Wednesday to read the rest of the story. It also contains some tremendous visuals, specifically backgrounds drawn by Roberto de la Torre that speak to the scope and breadth of this cosmic series. Even if you’re not a current reader, we suggest taking a look below for the artwork of X-O Manowar #50 alone.





Posted in Comics, Comics Bulletin | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Leading Questions: Legends and Leaders

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 22, 2016.


Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

DC Comics are rooted in pulp origins and Marvel Comics spring out of sci-fi. How does that reflect in their “universes”?

I like that this question isn’t framed as a Marvel versus DC quandary. We’ve already had some fun with that in the past. It’s really not a useful thing to ponder though. While the publishers have different strengths and vary in quality in any given year, trying to declare one the winner of superhero comics is the height of silliness. It’s a lot more useful to examine how they contrast and what the means; that’s something this question gets right to the heart of.

While we look at these two as the modern titans of American comics publishing and classic rivals, there’s about a two decade span of time between their origins. You can point to Timely Comics and the creation of characters like Captain America and Namor, the Sub-Mariner dating back to the Golden Age. These foundations were built simultaneously with National Comics and Detective Comics rise to power (along with their merger in 1946) and the creation of Superman, Batman, and almost every other Justice League stalwart. It was only DC Comics that would continue as a powerhouse of superhero comics through the 1960s though. As Timely became Atlas and then Marvel in 1961, it moved between genres like romance and monster comics. The rivalry between these two as we think of it today did not really begin until after the publication of Fantastic Four #1 and birth of the “Marvel Universe” in November 1961, almost a quarter century after the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1.

This enormous time gap led to a variety of different influences, both in fiction and reality, influencing how these comics were structured and who was creating them. DC Comics earliest characters were born out of the pulp tradition, which was still very active when they began publishing. Pulps were focused on fantastic heroes set in a reality that loosely resembled our own. Doc Savage was a perfect man constantly going on adventures; The Shadow sought vengeance from the shadows; Ka-Zar swung through the jungles and battled dinosaurs. They were outstanding individuals who cultivated a unique mythos around their personalities and powers (natural or otherwise).

You can see that influence on early DC characters in more way than one. The most obvious comparison comes in finding the direct influences of comics creators. Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have spoke openly about a variety of pulp inspirations for the Man of Steel, including Doc Savage. No matter what that schmuck Bob Kane may have said, it’s impossible to deny that Batman traces his roots to The Shadow.


What’s far more interesting though is the structure of these characters and how they connect to their pulp origins. Take a look at how Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and just about every other well known DC character was initially presented in the Golden Age. They were not only the heroes of their stories, but were unique to their stories. Superman did not emerge as the greatest hero in a world of heroes, he was the only man with his abilities. In Action Comicsand then Superman, his stories formed a mythos around him. He collected a rogues gallery and supporting cast. His mythology grew and grew, all in support of this singular protagonist.

That is how each of these characters were developed, as the story to be told with no concern to how they would or could connect. They certainly did, starting with the birth of the Justice Society in All-Star Comics #3 at the end of 1940, but that was an oddity. Each hero was given their own city, their own cast, and essentially their own world that would be shaped to support a mythos centered on them. Just like Doc Savage and The Shadow, they were meant to be figures of legendary stature, unrivaled in their defining characteristics.

The earliest characters that founded the Marvel Comics brand were based in the genre and ideas of science fiction though. This stems from a few core reasons. When the architects of this publisher, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee, began to create they possessed a much more uniform approach. This is thanks to having relatively few creators all working together. While Kirby and Ditko had vastly different styles, Lee still brought a unifying element with his dialogue crafted after stories were drawn. Kirby especially had a major fascination with modern science and innovation, a voracious reader who picked up words and ideas whenever possible.

It also came at a time in history when science fiction was hot. The pulps were largely a thing of the past, with their best representatives existing in the form of DC Comics. However, sci-fi novels had risen in esteem and created a growing fandom. This is linked to the Cold War and America’s fascination with scientists as both warriors and heroes in the period. Concepts of space travel and nuclear power were the future of warfare and civilization, and with each passing year the impossible became possible.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-8-27-31-pmWhat you find with these early Marvel characters is that they tend to be a contribution to a larger world. When Tony Stark builds his first suit or Reed Richards takes his family into space or Hank Pym experiments with some new particles, they are already part of plots and experiments building the future. They are not unique or iconic in the same way that DC Comics characters are.

You can imagine the world and narrative around any of those scientists continuing after they die, and in a manner that isn’t continually meant to honor them. If Tony Stark were to disappear tomorrow, it’s not difficult to imagine James Rhodes continuing as War Machine (give or take a resurrection) without anyone needing to pick up the mantle or Iron Man. Stark and his inventions contribute to and expand the world, but he is not the only person capable of doing so. The important part of Iron Man stories is not Iron Man, but how the comics allow for new ideas and relationships to be continually explored and pushed in new directions.

To craft a metaphor, both the DC and Marvel universes are trees, but what makes them strong is different. DC Comics’ strength is found in its trunk. Looking at its longest-lasting characters like Superman or Wonder Woman, it’s the core idea of there being a Superman or Wonder Woman that not only gives these characters their power, but their entire family or allies and enemies. Remove Superman from the picture and you must rush to fill his place (sometimes with as many as four imitators). What gives his allies their power is how they relate to the core ideaology of the original. Even in a franchise like Green Lantern or Flash, the power of the concept is concentrated on a mantle. When Jay retires or Barry sacrifices himself, the title is passed on because The Flash must continue to exist.

On the other hand, Marvel’s tree finds its strength in its branches. While you can pinpoint an origin for a character like The Hulk, Bruce Banner as a scientist has grown himself and those around him in countless new directions. The Hulk is not fixed in a core ideal. That original concept meant to explore a Jekyll and Hyde-like relationship has been expanded to include life as a Vegas fixer, gladiatorial champion, and super-strong super scientist. None of these roads are any more quintessential than any other. In addition to Banner’s own changes, he has brought to rise the stories of She-Hulk, a fourth-wall breaking attorney, and dozens of other Hulk-types. The key to his stories and those of so many other classic Marvel characters is the continual need for invention and experimentation.

It’s easy to talk about this essence versus experimentation difference when looking at some of the most popular characters at either publisher. Superman and Batman are unchangeable tentpoles who have created expanded universes swirling around and in relation to their identities. Mr. Fantastic and Ant-Man are often best recognized in stories and characters to which they share only a tangential relationship. However, I think the best example of each publisher’s strength can be found in heroes who typically lack ongoing series or mainstream recognition. If I was going to summarize the pulp and sci-fi cores of these two and why they are strengths, I’d have to discuss Starman and The Vision.


The original Starman was created by Gardner Fox and Jack Burnley in 1941, but never managed to become very popular and faded largely into obscurity over the next five decades. It wasn’t until 1994 when James Robinson and Tony Harris introduced Jack Knight, Ted’s son, that the name took on any significance in the world of superhero comics. Over the course of 81 issues and various mini-series and one-shots they not only told Jack’s story, but created a mythos around the Starman mantle.

Pulling from a variety of heroes who had used the name and inventing others, they wove the concept of Starman into a single cohesive narrative. It became a story about exploration and discovery. Whether it was plunging into the hidden history of Opal City or flying into space, the various Starmen always were seeking the horizon. These men almost always were tied to The Opal, a city defined by its hero as much as it defined its hero. Local police and other supporting cast members like The Shade and The Mist circled around their story. They were typically united by a few key powers, flying and utilizing a power source to control external elements.

Most significantly, it became a story about legacy focused on fathers, sons, and brothers. Starman was a title that united all of the men who bore it, even if only for a few days, and it was that title that was ultimately important. Starman was the hero of Opal City. Starman was the hero of the series. Starman was the legacy that pulled so many disparate elements together. This one title became a legend that none of the story could exist without. While the series crossed over with characters like Captain Marvel and Batman, they were always extraneous to the plot. Starman was a DC property without significance until the name itself was given importance.


The Vision on the other hand was born from a strange combination of elements, drawing oddities together rather than affirming a central identity. For those unfamiliar with the character’s comics origin, he was created by Ultron 5 who was the latest iteration of Hank Pym’s experiment with artificial intelligence gone homicidally wrong. While Pym is best known for the discovery of Pym Particles, allowing objects to grow or shrink, his creation utilized new discoveries to allow The Vision control of his density. Furthermore, Ultron 5 used the brain pattern Simon Williams, a deceased man super-powered by the machination of the Masters of Evil, to provide him with a personality. It’s a confluence of inventions, discoveries, characters, and stories creating something entirely new.

Since his creation The Vision has led to a wide array of bizarre stories. He has had impossible children with fellow Avenger Scarlet Witch, lost his “soul” to Simon Williams, seen his android family grown in a variety of forms, and been recast as a teenager. There is no pure or essential form of The Vision. His origin and existence lends itself to stories about the nature of humanity and self-determination. Yet the mad science that concocted him has allowed for his story to be reshaped year after year. He is a malleable character formed by bizarre combinations and adding to plenty of new ones.

Looking at characters like Vision and Starman, specifically series like The Vision and Starman, it seems obvious to me that they come from very different places. Comparing them leads to a complex array of differences that originate with the very publishers to which they belong. But it’s not a versus comparison, it’s a discussion of difference. Because looking at The Vision and Starman, while you might have a preference, there’s no way you’d want to live in a world with only one. They embrace the strengths of these publishers origins and what their characters tend to do best based on those roots. They are incredible comics because of where they originate.

In case the title of this week’s column didn’t snap into place, it’s a dumb reference to my alma mater’s sports conference: The Big Ten. It refers to differences between all of the schools involved, between those with established reputations defined by their history and those making constant changes in their athletic and academic programs. It’s a terrible naming scheme for a notable conference, but it does seem oddly fitting for this comparison.

DC Comics is a publisher defined by legendary characters. They are shaped by archetypal superheroes and incredible legacies. Marvel is a publisher defined by experimentation and alteration. Their characters regularly alter themselves, one another, and the world around them. These two legendary worlds of superheroes are separated by much more than two decades; they’re differentiated by tradition, style, and influence. It’s those differences that have allowed both of their universes to last and what allows them to remain relevant even when set side-by-side today.

Posted in Comics, Comics Bulletin, Critical Analysis, Industry Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Xenomorphs are The Greatest Villains in Comics

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 21, 2016.


This week Dark Horse Comics launches Aliens: Life and Death in which characters from previous series will be pursued by hordes of the chitinous, black Xenomorphs.

It accompanies Aliens: Defiance, another mini-series centered on this famous science-fiction monster. Comics readers won’t be surprised to find multiple series featuring this antagonist though. They’ve been a mainstay of comics for decades now in series of their own and crossovers with various publishers like DC Comics, 2000 A.D., and Wildstorm.

What makes these aliens so popular? Why have they appeared alongside so many other comics properties? I’m here to make the case that it’s because they’re the greatest villain in all of comics, and here’s why…


Where They Come From

The Xenomorph made its debut in film in the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien. It was a smash hit that redefined the science fiction and horror genres on the big screen in America. All three stages of the creature’s incredible design by H. R. Giger were equal parts evocative and terrifying. The success of the original film and its enduring popularity led to the greatly acclaimed Aliens from director James Cameron. Xenomorphs have continued to appear in films ever since, including the crossover AVP: Alien Vs. Predator.

Having those two alien races face off didn’t originate in the movies though. It began with comic book artist Chris Warner who thought of the idea in 1989. This is only one example of how Xenomorphs have worked their way into comics, both benefiting the medium and benefitting from it. They have been a mainstay of comics since they first appeared, regularly featuring in a variety of ongoing series, mini-series, and anthologies.

What is most notable about the Xenomorph is how adaptable it has been through a variety of other stories. In addition to comics set in the universe created by Scott in Alien, the Xenomorph has faced off against characters like Batman, Judge Dredd, Terminators, WildC.A.T.S., and Green Lantern. They have been the source of unique stories, incredible destruction, and unending terror for three decades of comics.


What Makes Them Unique

Discovering what makes the Xenomorph unique requires no more than looking at its surface. Giger created a monster that has been a fascination for artists ever since. It is based in Freudian psychology with strong phallic imagery that raises more fears than simply being killed and eaten. The alien’s final form is monstrous with long talons and tail, sharp teeth and multiple mouths. Every element is designed to kill, including its very blood with melts through steel. Even as an embryo the alien is terrifying though. It embeds itself in a host, transforming them into a time bomb, one that will be viciously destroyed from the inside while creating a new monster that will stalk others.

The unique aspects of the Xenomorph goes far beyond Giger’s design for the beast though. Its beauty as an antagonist lies in its simplicity. They are uncomplicated in their motives. Xenomorphs have a simple lifecycle that begins with implanting an embryo in a living creature that will then emerge from its host to grow and relentlessly stalk and kill those who are not transformed into hosts. They are based in the most basic drive of nature: to survive and replicate. This motive can be twisted by the desires of others and grander plans, but it is relentless in nature. They will never stop seeking prey or hosts, and are incredibly difficult to stop.

There have been many imitators to the Xenomorph. Many comics and movie creatures have been designed as killing machines. Others have been crafted to be unstoppable or to represent primal forces or fears. None have combined all of these elements with the same perfection as the Xenomorph. It is the ultimate killing machine and an evocation of our deepest nightmares, functioning in a single form.


Why They’re The Best

It’s that unique design that makes the Xenomorph the best antagonist in comics. No matter what character or world you may set a story in, they are a powerful threat. On a purely physical level they can confront almost any hero or protagonist. Given how easily the walking dead have overrun Earth, the Xenomorph surely spells an extinction level event. Even Judge Dredd, the toughest cop in Mega City One, or Batman, the Dark Knight himself, can be challenged by a single one of these monsters. Only a character like Superman could hope to take them on en masse, and that’s only assuming no red sunlight or Kryptonite is involved. These aliens will destroy everything in their path, transforming any recognizable or vaguely sympathetic person into a protagonist. Even someone like Lex Luthor will want an Earth to bow to his intellect when all is said and done.

However, it’s the deeper, darker horrors the Xenomorph represents that make them the truly best villain in all of comics. They are a nihilistic onslaught without reason, emotion, or sympathy. Each Xenomorph exists only to kill and procreate. Their utterly black shells reflect a dark universe that can kill anyone at any moment. When you look outside at night and wonder whether there’s justice or a greater design, it’s the spirit of the alien that answers no. You cannot even look it in its eyes, it only offers a mouth ready to consume more and more.

In Giger’s design and the many stories created so far are a variety of other themes to explore as well. Fears of pregnancy, sexual assault, and unlimited capitalism are all baked into the Xenomorph as well. Creators can use these creatures to delve into almost any fear or conflict they want their heroes to encounter. They can reflect the worst aspects of individuals, humanity, and the universe itself. Xenomorphs are the consummate monster.

The Final Word

From their very first appearance on film, it was clear the Xenomorph was a truly potent villain. While it has continued to haunt movie screens intermittently, it has truly thrived in comics. In the pages of various comics for more than three decades, these aliens have not only continued their own stories, but populated those of a variety of other characters. They slaughtered most of Stormwatch at Wildstorm and made Dredd face one of his darkest days. In every incarnation they are terrifying, and help us learn about our own greatest fears through the stories of our heroes and their victims.

Posted in ComicBook.Com, Comics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

REVIEW: Hellboy: The Black Sun Makes the Familiar Feel Fresh

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 21, 2016.


The ending of Hellboy’s story is a known quantity, but Mike Mignola isn’t done telling Hellboy stories.

Using the gap between Hellboy’s discovery during World War II and his first appearance in “Seed of Destruction”, Mignola and co-writer Chris Roberson are detailing how Hellboy came to be the man comics readers know and love. This period provides them with a lot of freedom, able to explore new settings and ideas that were left out of the original Hellboy stories. In “The Black Sun” the story is moved to Antarctica in 1954, in a tale that riffs on its own mythos without ever reading as predictable.

If there’s an obvious influence in “The Black Sun” it doesn’t come from Hellboy lore though, but that of American horror films. Antarctica is famously the setting of John Carpenter’s The Thing and it’s a comparison this comic does not duck away from. Scientists huddled together in a remote setting, racial tension, a mysterious, twisted beast: all of that is here and more. Mignola and Roberson admire the elements that make The Thing great without allowing their homage to devolve into parody or ripoff though. This remains a Hellboy story with the monsters and motivations rooted in Hellboy’s universe. The shared components remain as nods that fans of both properties will appreciate, without requiring a knowledge of either to engage the story.

Roberson’s inclusion in plotting Hellboy stories shows a knack for what makes the character work. His hardheaded approach to problems where his right fist is a hammer and anything out of the ordinary a nail maintains both its humor and charm. What really sings about “The Black Sun” though is its final panel, in a twist that feels like classic Hellboy without being obvious even as you turn the page. There’s nothing new or innovative to the narrative, but it still reads as being an enjoyable addition to this extensive narrative. Elements from previousHellboy and the B.P.R.D. mini-series are included, while their many elements are remixed to keep readers guessing while turning pages.

What makes the first issue of “The Black Sun” really pop is the introduction of new Dark Horse artist Stephen Green. Green’s style fits into the carefully curated Mignola-verse, with recognizable characters and monsters. However, his use of inks mark him as someone with visual sensibilities to watch out for. Hellboy’s facial expressions are subtle, but always clear. Green pushes the character’s jaw or cheek bones just enough to mark him as questioning or charmed. When in close up small details like teeth or sideburns are imperfect in a deeply humanizing way. It’s clear how long the big, red guy has had since a shave and that he never had braces.

The smallness of those details shouldn’t undermine what Green can do with a set piece. One particularly claustrophobic sequence towards the end of the issue is framed exceedingly well, and when the settings sprawl he provides a very clear sense of space. Colorist Dave Stewart helps to highlight the enormity of these moments as well. He utilizes bright reds and whites against dulls greys and browns to contrast the key objects in any splash panel.

This new installment of Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. is every bit as enjoyable as those that preceded it and for the same reasons. It’s like catching up with an old friend. You know a lot of what to expect, but a few new elements and changes make you glad you’re catching a beer. It’s a great way to spend a half hour, especially when you consider someone like Green’s career in comics may just be beginning. This may not be can’t miss comics, but you certainly shouldn’t consider dismissing it.

Grade: B

Posted in Comic Reviews, ComicBook.Com, Wednesday Checkup | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

In Defense of Brian Michael Bendis

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 17, 2016.


Brian Michael Bendis is indisputably one of the biggest names in comics today. In the past 15 years he has redefined the Avengers and X-Men franchises, created more than a dozen highly popular characters, won five Eisner Awards, and written more Marvel events than you can throw cash at.

His currently writes more than five comics each month, with some featuring characters he co-created like Jessica Jones and Miles Morales. His influence and impact on comics, specifically Marvel Comics, is undeniable.

That profile has created a perception among some comics readers that Bendis essentially runs Marvel with some sort of special sway over any decisions being made. While he is respected and listened to among his peers, he is neither an editor nor an owner of the publisher. His role has remained that of a comics writer, and this is where his impact can be most clearly seen and felt. Unfortunately, perception is treated like reality and Bendis’ perception has led to him being seen as a figurehead for many of Marvel’s actions, especially its follies.

When Marvel makes a misstep or controversial decision, it is often Bendis’ name that is at the front of the conversation on Twitter and other message boards. In the past year he has been raked over the coals by comics fans for issues ranging from the state of the direct market, creative assignments on specific books, and character choices. While the last of these three items does involve his input, the former two are ultimately far outside of his control.

It’s not that Bendis is somehow above being criticized. Critics ought to feel free to respond to what Bendis says on social media or places into a story. However, there is a distinction between criticizing a creator for their output and for actions they have no hand in. Criticizing Bendis’ work and his person are two different actions, and it seems they have begun to overlap in many uncomfortable ways.

It is worthwhile to consider the real impact Bendis has made at Marvel Comics; it must be significant given both the longevity and profile of his career. But what actual actions can be assigned to the man? What is he really responsible for? In spite of some perceptions, the reality reveals a lot of positives both on the page and behind the scenes.


Bendis’ most substantial contributions to the Marvel shared universe isn’t any selection of stories, but the characters he has added to it. Alias, one of his very first series for the publisher, added Jessica Jones (co-created by Michael Gaydos) and fused her with decades of continuity. Alias is notable in that it featured a solo female protagonist at time when the publisher had very few to offer. Furthermore it presented her as a fully formed character, defined outside of a tight costume and idealized forms. Her relationship with Luke Cage and sexual autonomy were also unique in 2001 (and a rarity still today).

Jessica Jones has only grown in popularity since her introduction and became the first Marvel Studios heroine to receive her own series or film. However, Bendis’ most substantial creation is probably that of Miles Morales a.k.a. Spider-Man (co-created by Sara Pichelli). Morales first appeared as a replacement for the recently deceased Spider-Man of Marvel’s Ultimate line. First introduced as a replacement for Marvel’s “Ultimate” Spider-Man, Morales broke down a variety of barriers and garnered a great deal of mainstream attention for being of African American and Puerto Rican heritage. Although the character riled up critics on conservative networks like Fox News, Morales quickly gained a dedicated fanbase among Marvel readers who embraced the character. Following the events of Secret Wars, Morales has left the Ultimate line and joined the mainstream Marvel universe in the title Spider-Man, further boosting his profile.


More recently Marvel Comics announced Riri Williams, another new character created by Bendis and Stefano Caselli who would be assuming the role of Iron Man in the Marvel universe. Riri’s introduction is notable again for adding a diverse new character to a spot traditionally filled by a white man in Marvel Comics. This announcement also upset some who pointed to Marvel’s complete historical lack of black women in writing roles. It is a valid concern and one the publisher is making initial steps to confront with the hiring of Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey to write the upcoming series World of Wakanda. Bendis’ direct contribution to the entire situation is focused on the creation of Riri though, a positive stride in diversifying superhero comics on the page.

While Bendis does not have the power to hire writers or assign characters at Marvel Comics, he does possess influence over his own books and the ability to suggest creators for consideration. His career is a testament to long-term collaborations and loyalty towards artists. After the conclusion of Alias, he has waited until co-creator Gaydos’ schedule was open before considering writing another Jessica Jones ongoing series himself. His work on Ultimate Spider-Man saw a record breaking number of issues by the same creative team as he and artist Mark Bagley crossed the 100 issue landmark together. Currently, Bendis and Pichelli continue to work on Mile Morales together in Spider-Man, five years after introducing the character together.

Whether you speak to creators who have passed through Marvel or currently work there, Bendis’ name is bound to appear before too long. Writer David F. Walker (Shaft, Power Man and Iron Fist) attributes his jump from journalism to comics to his friendship with Bendis. After years of watching his friend follow his dreams, Walker created a plan to pursue his own passions and talked it over with Bendis. Walker says that as he began to pursue his dreams, “He just became one of my greatest cheerleaders… When I’ve been down and out, and he’s propped me up. When I score a victory, he’s one of the first to congratulate me.”

Bendis is also known for keeping his eye on small press and independent comics creators. He was the first person at Marvel Comics to take note of COPRA creator Michel Fiffe selling his renowned revenge comics on Etsy. After Bendis reached out to him, Fiffe was hired to write All-New Ultimates and create a short story for the anthology one-shot Secret Love. Fiffe says, “…it all stems from his love and interest in the world of comics. That enthusiasm has definitely helped a lot of us get a leg up.”

Speaking to creators like Walker, Fiffe, and Ed Brubaker, there is an undeniable tone of warmth and gratitude towards the man. He is well-liked and the increased profile of these and other peers has done the comics industry itself a great deal of good. None of this is to suggest Bendis for canonization or to say that he is beyond criticism. However, it does go to show the changes and improvements that Bendis has generated from his prominent position within the comics industry.

Considering both what Bendis has created at Marvel Comics and only some of the careers he has helped, it is impossible to deny that he has been a force for good in comics. Whatever critics may say about his work, an expansive bibliography impossible to summarize in any case, his impact goes far beyond the stories he tells. Bendis has been a generator of ideas and characters at Marvel, all of whom have helped rebuild a brand. And he has been a supporter of new talent, boosting voices from outside of the mainstream to further reshape comics’ consistently biggest publisher. When you put speculation aside and assess what has actually been done, Brian Michael Bendis’ career is one dedicated to making comics better.

Posted in ComicBook.Com, Comics, Creator Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment