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590-1I avoided 1602 for years for no good reason. One of my biggest problems with the big serial mess of the superhero genre today is the “in crowd” exclusivity it seems to revel in, making for a literature of fandom rather than one of universal questions and challenges. Gaiman’s purpose to writing 1602 seemed, at first glance, to be nothing more than this; a “wouldn’t it be cool if” scenario where he gets to put familiar superhero characters in the unfamiliar setting of Elizabethan England and thereby allow himself to reference two of his favorite geeknesses: 1960s low art and 1600s high art. So I passed.

My prejudice wasn’t completely meritless. The first couple chapters are full of groaners, especially with the name-plays. See, in 1602 his name is Peter Parquagh – get it? It’s like Parker but archaic! And why does this boy have such an odd fascination with . . . spiders?! Hooo, I get that reference! Then there’s the muscled-up stranger from the New World who’s an unusually blonde and white captain-like Native American named Rogers . . . oops, I mean “Rohjaz.”

The rest of the set-up pages follow suit as we’re introduced to the cast and settings. Nick Fury is instead Sir Nicholas, and instead of a techy super spy he’s the Queen’s most trusted intelligence aide and protector. Dr. Strange, who normally lives in New York’s Greenwich Village, awkwardly states that he lives in “the village of Greenwich” to someone who already knows where he lives. The Fantastic Four are still a band of friends led by a scientist who gain powers in a freak accident, but here they travel to the New World in a ship called The Fantastick and are never heard from again except in legends of super-powered transformations and do-goodery. The “a-ha!” and “oh yeah!” moments are many and frequently grating.

But then I surprisingly found myself buried knee-deep in the middle of the book without pausing to take a note or breathe or eat a sandwich and I realized that the story is good despite itself. Or is it actually just good despite my knee-jerk presumptions of hokeyness?

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Someone smash me! I’m a year late to the biggest summer comic book blockbuster of the century! Nothing will ever be the same! Wait, it’s a year later and everything’s the same. Oh well, so much for Marvel’s 2007 summer fracas World War Hulk. At least I didn’t pay $300 for all the issues and crossover tie-ins while it was coming out.

Maybe catching up on World War Hulk now is better since it allows me to read it as I like to read everything (a contained literary work) rather than how it must be read when it’s being published (a fan community social event). I’m still halfway through the Greg Pak-written main series and I love it so far. The gist of it is brilliantly simple: a group of superheroes blast the unstable monster of green destruction into space but when he lands in a far-off barbarian planet and starts a new life the spaceship in which he arrived self-destructs, killing his family. What happens next? You guessed it! But I took a sidestep to read Paul Jenkins’s tie-in story, World War Hulk: Front Line, mainly because I needed a respite from hardcore violence but also because Jenkins writes consistently satisfying superhero stories and I suspected I would like this even more.

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I wonder sometimes if the critical acclaim some comics receive does more harm to the medium than good. If a comic gets lots of attention and it turns out that it’s inaccessible or badly written or just plain pedestrian yet illustrated, can that be good for a medium seeking acceptance? I sometimes wish we would stop holding up genre potboiler page-turners like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns as the highest mark of artistic merit we can achieve. Fans are so quick to show off anything that even tries to be “smart” which validates the invalid feeling among the literati that comics naturally aren’t intelligent and therefore must try to transcend themselves. And how long before the literati catch on that what we’re showing off is sub-par anyway?

Halfway through The Golden Age I thought it was “fine enough.” An interesting plot, unpredictable characters, good solid Saturday-afternoon-in-the-park reading much like The Dark Knight Returns. A few more pages in and I realized it wasn’t even that. It’s just a bad comic — amateurish writing from James Robinson that any first-year fiction workshop would whip into shape and art from a normally brilliant penciler (Paul Smith) who tries so hard to change his style that he comes up with a mix of ugly and anatomically incorrect. So why bother writing about it at all here? Because this is one of the most critically acclaimed “graphic novels” of all time, a post-modern superhero genre critique that supposedly takes apart all of the things that make it work and exposes its dark underbelly, and it’s not at all. It’s a comic that forces its characters like so many chess pieces into a strategy that resembles something like an intelligent genre critique, leaving all relatable human feeling at the door.

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In my opinion superstrength should not be considered a true super power. What good is it against all the other guys who have it too? I’ve decided instead that superstrength is a given (or should be) and is only really a super power if partnered with say, super speed, force fields or lazers, X ray vision, mind control or flying capabilities.

As a young girl my first infatuation was, not surprisingly, with superstrength. Because really, what power does a small female child have less of in today’s (or -I guess – yesterday’s) world? My childhood heroes were Hefty Smurf (was he really endowed with special powers or did he just work out a lot? Either way he could perform super Smurfian feats) and Popeye (my mother could only convince me to eat spinach – which I still hate – by telling me my biceps would grow that big. Sadly, they didn’t).

Over the years, I’ve moved past the mere consideration of super strength. Super genius now tops the list. I’m also a bit obsessed with telekinesis. In general I flatter myself in thinking that my super power philosophies have evolved a bit since I was five years old, when I was impressed if someone merely lifted a stationwagon.

Of course that assumes that the discussion of super powers can be considered mature. I believe it can be, as I’m sure Jesse and Devin would agree. The desire for super powers is, I think, one of the few things that most people can agree on. We all want to be greater than we are and it’s fun (and not to mention revealing) to imagine what powers would enhance us. We may want to be smarter, stronger, or more beautiful. Or maybe we just want to be able to walk through walls or move metal with our minds (another of my personal favorites).

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I’ve been reading superhero comics since I knew how to read, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to wonder why. For the most part they’re garbage. Today’s more literary-minded super-books are as junky and disposable as they were when the genre was invented in the late 1930s, only today’s stories lack the ridiculous fun and surprise that made the older ones so enjoyable. Yet I keep going back to that comic book store every week or so.

It might be nostalgia, or habit, but I think it’s mostly hope — hope for an immersive reading experience as awesome as Runaways, the ongoing super-book created by Brian K. Vaughan and mostly drawn by Adrian Alphona (NB: Brian recently handed over the writing reins to my personal hero Joss Whedon but I’m not up to those issues yet!)

Whenever a new volume of Runaways comes out (and by that I mean the paperback collections — you can’t beat that “6 Issues for 8 Bucks” bargain, kids!) I’m totally gonzo giddy until I get it home and start ripping through it. I just noticed this for the first time last week when I picked up “Parental Guidance” (Volume 6), and I also noticed how little I look forward to any other superhero comic by contrast. It set my mind to wondering what happened to those days of my youth when every comic brought that same feeling.

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Editor’s Note: [Heh — fooled ya! I bet you thought there would be a note from an editor here. Alas, it’s just me. But I wanted to explain the following post. This week I have to read a bunch of comics for my lovely job, including manga (Japanese comics). And I’ve never read any manga before in my life. Ever. Just thought you should know.]

 

Naruto had to be the first manga I read in my effort to learn about Japanese comics, since it’s absolutely hands-down the champion high king bestselling comic book throughout the entire known universe at the moment. Naruto kicks sales ass in ways we haven’t seen in the comics industry since the 1940s, if ever. I had to see what it was all about.

What I want to say before I get too deep into it is that Naruto is a very poorly done comic. The figure drawing and linework is fine enough, but the storytelling — that all-important sequential clarity that all comics require — is sorely lacking. I spent a lot of my time doubling back a page or two trying to figure out what had just happened only to learn that there was no way to tell other than to read ahead and hope I got it in context or expository dialogue later on. The writing is equally bad, by necessity, since there is indeed a lot of expository dialogue needed to explain very simple plot points that I could have gotten on my own if the drawing was better.

With that out of the way, I also want to say that I really liked Naruto, I want to find out what happens next, and I completely understand why kids are gobbling this up like cookies all around the world.

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We all have our essential qualities that drive us forward or trip us up, that make everything in life work or break down, but we don’t notice them because we’re too busy worrying about the price of gas or whether or not someone likes us back. It takes life starting over — something that rarely, if ever, happens — to make us look inside without the usual mundane distractions.

But when you die, return from the afterlife, save the universe a couple times, and finally come back to where you were at the start of it all — that’s a grand opportunity. Only in the funny books!

At the start of Green Lantern: No Fear, Hal Jordan has returned to his former life, but nothing is the same (the details of his previous life chapter aren’t important for the purposes of this story — ain’t that nice? — and there’s a recap at the beginning of the book if you must know). Coast City, his hometown, was destroyed by a super bad guy and is only partway through a troubled, halting reconstruction. His brothers and their families hardly know him. He has to earn his way back to the top of his former career as a test pilot. We’re reading about a rebirth, a starting back from Square One, so we get to see his essentials, and see ourselves in them as well. Of course, since this is a Green Lantern comic book, fear is the biggest player in Hal Jordan’s psyche. Writer Geoff Johns knows that this is, conveniently, the biggest player in our collective real world psyche as well.

 

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Against my better judgment, I recently bought a copy of Green Lantern: No Fear. It’s a collection of the current monthly Green Lantern comic book series, and the chuckle you just allowed yourself at my expense is exactly why I at first thought it would be a waste of my time. It just sounds geeky and useless.

This isn’t an unfair assumption when you consider the state of superhero comics these days. Comics as an overall art form is very healthy — graphic novels, newspaper strips, and self-published comics ‘zines are all doing well commercially and critically. But those monthly superhero tales are such awful loads of crap. And this is coming from a die-hard superhero fan.

My overall complaint is simple: truly great literature is universal, and there is nothing universal about this stuff. Superhero comic book publishers cater to a relatively small group of fans who are thrilled by the fact that their beloved characters are treated respectfully and seriously. It’s apparently enough for these readers to read periodic updates on the ups and downs of each hero’s love life or drug addiction or family situation. Superhero comics today are, for the most part, akin to soap operas or reality shows; there to excite readers who have an encyclopedic knowledge of each character’s history with references and in-jokes. That’s not a literary experience but a feeling of clubhouse belonging.

Green Lantern might be the comics outsider’s easiest example of this. Other superheroes have successfully nestled themselves in the greater public consciousness. Batman has his dark, brooding cool factor. Superman’s sense of moral certainty and optimism has always resonated far outside the comics community. Spider-Man is the everyman outsider – an outcast with a heart of gold. Wonder Woman appeals to a mainstream American mindset of feminism and the strength of the individual.

But Green Lantern? Isn’t he the guy with the magic ring?

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Jessica’s Reading

Jesse’s Reading

Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

Devin’s Reading

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