Now that I'm not doing the Hot Shot of the Week feature, I tend to miss having my weekly chance to bang you over the head with my taste. That is, of course, other than by reviewing stuff, or writing columns about books I like, or whatever.
At any rate, the point being that from now on I've decided to take a few minutes within a day or two of comics' release date (in this case, Thursday) and mention some of my favorite books. I'll do capsule reviews of my top however-many books of the week and then a fuller review of the one I thought was best.
Without any more ado...!
Spider-Man: The Short Halloween #1
Written by a couple of Saturday Night Live writers (Seth Meyers and Bill Hader) and drawn by Formerly Known as the Justice League alumnus Kevin Maguire, this is a nice one-shot that gives those of us who walked away from Spidey after One More Day/Brand New Day a chance to reconnect with the character for a while. Marvel makes sure to get some stock BND images into the "Last time on Spider-Man one-page recap, but ultimately this story could happen anywhere inside or outside of continuity. Maguire is a supremely talented artist, of course, but his work is frankly not suited to Marvel's dark and heavily textured style of coloring. While there are a few really nice pages, I feel that overall this book would have been better off if they'd just inked and colored it a little more like a book from ten years ago, giving Maguire's art a chance to succeed on its own terms instead of hamstringing it with a look that doesn't suit him.
This book is fun and interesting, though. It's cool for no reason other than the fact that it could be a logical Saturday Night Live sketch--combine the absurdity of a world where people dress up in tights and fight crime, with the insanity of New York City at Halloween. Hilarity ensues. Think about the fact that in "real" life, all it takes is a well-timed movie to make Spider-Man or Batman the most popular Halloween costume of the year. In the Marvel Universe, you've ACTUALLY had Spider-Man zipping around the City, saving people's lives, for years now.
The flipside of that, of course, are the guys who dress up as Green Goblin and Doc Ock. While it's absolutely hilarious to watch them punching Spider-Man, one on each side and repeatedly, while he stands with his head in his hands exasperated by their stupidity, one does have to wonder what kind of especially jerky person would dress up like a guy who's been damaging property, killing people and generally being a public nuisance in your town for years. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the mayor of New York would make a law saying, "Sorry folks, these guys are off-limits for Halloween. Do we want Green Goblin walking right up to the Halloween parade and killing a bunch of people because with six other Green Goblins, nobody knew those pumpkin bombs were real?"
...I mean...years being relative...it's not like he's some old married guy or something...
[ahem] Yes. Moving on.
The Last Days of Animal Man #1
Swinging from Marvel to DC, we've got The Last Days of Animal Man #1. Written by comics great Gerry Conway and featuring art by Chris Batista and David Meikis with customarily beautiful covers by Brian Bolland, the series takes place in the not-too-distant future (next Sunday, A.D.) of the DC Universe, where Superman has white temples again and Animal Man's powers seem to be leaving him. This is pretty much a stage-setting issue, letting the reader know where Buddy is in the future and what's going to happen in the story while not really moving the plot itself forward very much at the moment.
Since Grant Morrison isn't writing this book, they had to do something very different with it in order for fans to accept the story, and I think the succeeded. Conway is a traditional kinda guy, whose meat and potatoes are strong characterization and dynamic page layouts. Rather than trying to out-clever Morrison which, let's face it, is a fight that not many writers are going to win, he writes a more or less straightforward story that's impressive in its honesty, its fun and its quiet intelligence. Not entirely unlike what you might expect from an aging superhero in his last days before he realizes that maybe wearing tights and dropping a building on the bad guys isn't the be-all, end-all. After the number of times that Buddy Baker (and, recently, knock-off hero Vixen) has had problems connecting to the morphogenetic field, one wouldn't think that a whole miniseries based on the notion could be enthralling, but Conway succeeds admirably.
A plot point worth noting: Based on future covers we can see that Starfire is playing a big role in Buddy's life in the coming months; it's astounding to see how quickly those characters have taken to one another in the minds of writers and readers.
Batista is one of those artists whose work is, I think, severely undervalued by fans. It's clear that DC appreciates his ability to hit a deadline and turn in consistent, good-looking pages, because he's frequently seen on projects bigger than his name (like 52, for example, where he, Patrick Olliffe and a couple of others were frequently rescuing bigger-named artists from deadline hell). His work here is interesting in that it doesn't look like what I usually expect from him. Frankly, my favorite Batista work has often been dealing with African-American characters; he has a way of drawing decidedly "black" faces without all of them being the same or without using skin color as the only thing that separates Steel from Spider Jerusalem (well, that and the goatee). But here, he's drawing a lot of characters that he clearly has spent some time around (yes, yes, I know I just mentioned 52, and that Buddy and company played a big role there), and has some affection for. The result is some of the best work of an already good, underrated artist's career.
...and my book of the week? The thing I'd write about if I only had one story to write?
The final Hero Squared comic (at least for some time) ends on a decidedly up note, while still giving very little opportunity for Giffen and DeMatteis--or anyone else who might want to--to revisit the story or the universe without first doing a lot of very clever dancing. I talked to J.M. DeMatteis about the end of the series and--while a full interview will be up on the main page soon--I'll share some of his thoughts on the title here.
CR: "It's in the nature of the super-beast to keep going on and on and on with the battle." Is that a little bit of JM DeMatteis' "Savior 28 philosophy" creeping into Stephie's speech patterns here?
JMD: This kind of commentary on the value, or lack of same, of super-heroes has been part of Hero Squared right from the start—but it absolutely comes from the same place that The Life and Times of Savior 28 comes from. (And when you consider all those years that I was developing—and not selling!—The Life and Times of Savior 28, you can imagine how happy I was to have a series where I could work in some of those themes and ideas.) From the very beginning, Keith and I wanted Hero Squared to be a series that, within its comedic context, takes a good hard look at the destructive downside of the super-hero myth.
CR: That's a really interesting point--do you think that part of what makes superhero comics as we know them so melodramatic and monochromatic is that the status quo is God, and ultimately every story has to revert to a comfort zone?
JMD: Well, melodrama is part and parcel of the genre. How can stories about costumed super-beings not be melodramatic? But the monochromatic part? Absolutely. I know I've had several occasions, working on the established icons, where character development was leading me to a place where the character could genuinely, fundamentally, change and become something, some one, very different—but there's just so far you can take. The character was there before you came along and will be there long after you've stopped writing the series and if, say (to concoct an extreme example), you send Bruce Wayne to therapy and have him work through the death of his parents and realize that putting on a bat suit and beating the crap out of people is not the healthiest way to contribute to society...well, that would make a terrific story, but it would be the end of Batman. The upside and downside of these characters is that, in the end, they never really change. They're around for generations, entertaining people in. There are reinventions along the way but the essentials remain the same. That's why stepping outside the box with projects like Hero Squared and The Life and Times of Savior 28 is so liberating: you can do whatever you want to do, let the characters lead you wherever you want to go.
CR: Is there, also, a little bit of freedom from consequence when you're working with a creator-owned title at a smaller publisher? Obviously you wouldn't be allowed to do what you did here at DC or Marvel--but even if, in some Crisis-level event, you were allowed to...the fans would riot. Here? Not so much...!
JMD: I don't think it's about doing these stories at a smaller publisher, I think it's about doing your own original characters. The Life and Times of Savior 28 or Hero Squared could have been done as creator-owned series via Marvel or DC without any fundamental change. That said, I'm delighted that we did it with Boom! We were in on the ground floor, when Ross Richie (if that's not a super-hero secret identity name, I don't know what is!) was pretty much running the company out of his living room. I'm delighted by the incredible success Boom! has had in just a few short years. It's very well-deserved and Keith and I are both proud that Hero Squared was a major launching pad for the company.
CR: Do you think I can use "The Cretinous Milo" for the name of a rock band if I ever start one?
JMD: I spoke to Keith about that and he said you can absolutely use it if you pay us a licensing fee of $10,000 a month. I think that’s incredibly fair.
CR: Fair enough...but I'm taking The Cretinous Russ as a blog title. I’d probably have to spend that much learning an instrument, anyway! Was ending the series this way always the plan, or did it develop once the books started slowing down?
JMD: We didn’t start out that way, in fact we thought this could go on indefinitely. But as the book developed, as the themes of the story solidified, we began to see that ending it would make the most sense. The characters were growing and changing, leading us to a point where we just couldn’t continue the status quo. And I think Hero Squared absolutely benefits from a finite story, with a beginning, middle and end.
CR: Any chance we'll see some follow-up stories? Superheroics notwithstanding, I imagine that an Odd Couple-kinda thing featuring Sloat, Milo and Blaine would be funny!
JMD: Now to totally contradict the previous answer: I think there are still lots of stories to be found in the Hero Squared universe. Keith and I have been talking about a Sloat one-shot for years...and I think an Odd Triple with Sloat, Blaine and Milo would make a great story, with great dynamics. In the final issue of “Love and Death” we get a jump in time and see a huge evolution in Sloat’s character. I’d love to tell some stories that explore how he transformed from subservient little green lizard to Dean Martin. (Apologies to anyone out there who’s too young to know who Dean Martin is.) And, of course, we’ve got the Planetary Brigade and many, many untold tales from that universe and an entire multiverse filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of Captain Valors. So, yes, this story is definitely over, done, dead and buried: there’s no going back. But there are definitely many new stories waiting to be told.
CR: Are there any plans to get into the dirt of actually telling those stories, or is this end point a really good time to take a little while away from Milo & company?
JMD: I don't think you'll be seeing more Hero Squared-related stories anytime soon—of course, if Boom! gives a go-ahead for a Sloat one-shot I am totally there!—but it's something we'd like to return to down the line. That said, fans of the series should know that there are some other Big Plans afoot for Hero Squared (that I'm not at liberty to talk about just yet) that will, I think, make them very happy.
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