Today’s Super Comics — Batman #404-408 (1987)

batman_404I’m a bit pressed for time, so forgive me for going with a super-obvious one today. But Batman: Year One deserves all its many accolades.

Originally presented in Batman #404-408, this is writer Frank Miller’s other great Batman story, focusing on his early days rather than later days. But while The Dark Knight Returns seems to be the consensus favorite, I’ve always preferred the more down-to-earth Year One (though DKR might very well appear here before my year of positive reviews is over).

In Year One, Batman himself is the weirdest thing about his world. This is before the Joker, Mr. Freeze, and other colorful scoundrels have descended on Gotham City. (We do get some morally ambiguous Catwoman action, though.) Then-Lieutenant Gordon is the co-lead, and it’s basically a story of two flawed but good men trying to help their crime-ridden city in two very different ways. But maybe they can find some common ground and forge a productive friendship?

Artist David Mazzuchelli draws in an appropriately gritty style that produces several memorable Bat-images, and Miller’s tight story is constantly moving forward and gaining momentum.

Too often, writers portray Batman as so competent that he’s borderline superhuman, and that can be fun, but here we see an inexperienced Batman making mistakes and learning the ropes. This Batman is skilled but undeniably human, and that suits the character well.

If you enjoyed Batman Begins, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by reading this.

Writer: Frank Miller

Artist: David Mazzucchelli

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Batman: Year One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Marvel Premiere #47-48 (1979)

marvel_premiere_vol_1_47When Hank Pym debuted as Ant-Man, his early stories were kind of lackluster compared to those of the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, and others. There were several reasons for that, but a big one was Pym’s lack of a clearly defined motivation.

But Marvel got it right in the second draft, when ex-con Scott Lang took over the role in Marvel Premiere #47 and 48. Like in the movie, Scott steals the Ant-Man suit from his predecessor, but the circumstances are different. His nine-year-old daughter is suffering from a life-threatening heart condition, and there’s one specialist who might be able to operate on her…if Scott can rescue this doctor from her kidnappers.

That’s a pretty compelling motivation driving the story, and it gives us a Marvel superhero different from most others at the time—a single dad who’s a reluctant thief. Importantly, he’s a thief who’s willing to turn himself in after his daughter is safe, but Pym lets him off the hook…perhaps a bit too easily. Then again, Pym lacking clear motivation for his actions brings us full circle in a way.

The action is solid throughout. The villain shares the name of the movie’s villain, Darren Cross, although here he’s a pink brutish Hulk sort with a much higher IQ. He, too, has a heart condition, and he’s willing to steal people’s hearts to replace his own. He’s a true monster inside and out and a formidable obstacle for the rookie superhero, who has to rely much more on ingenuity than brute strength.

Definitely a much more interesting Ant-Man all around.

Writer: David Michelinie

Artists: John Byrne and Bob Layton

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Ant-Man Scott Lang (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Nova #1 (2013)

nova-1-2013Marvel is on a roll with the teen books lately. I’ve previously praised the new Ms. Marvel and Spider-Man a few times each…but now it looks like, as Yoda once said, there is another.

I’m not overly familiar with Nova. I could pick him out of a lineup. I could tell you he has something to do with an outer space–based police corps of the same name, not entirely unlike the Green Lantern Corps. I’ve seen this young new Nova in All-New, All-Different Avengers. And that was the extent of my knowledge as I began Nova #1.

We begin on Earth. The previous Nova—now working as a high school janitor—tells his son Sam stories about his glory days saving the galaxy as a member of the Nova Corps. Naturally, Sam thinks he’s making it all up—his unreliable father is no hero in his eyes. And Sam is feeling stuck in his small hometown, hoping to escape someday.

It’s a great entryway into the fantastical outer space adventures to come, making it all seem too good to be true.

The book includes many essential ingredients of a successful teen superhero book. We’ve got the bleeding of fantasy into reality, a flawed but good-hearted parent who isn’t making the teen’s situation any easier, and a powerful desire to escape life’s limits and do something amazing. We also get a cameo by some of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

Very strong start here.

Writer: Jeph Loeb

Penciler: Ed McGuinness

Inker: Dexter Vines

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Nova vol. 1: Origin (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Superman #76 (1993)

superman_v-2_76The Death of Superman storyline was a missed opportunity. Ample media coverage got tons of people interested, people who didn’t normally read comics. The whole world was watching. This was DC Comics’ chance to prove that comics could be more than musclebound men punching each other to death.

And how did they choose to kill of Superman? By having him and a monster punch each other until they both fell. Ugh.

But when it came to the events after the death, the Superman creative teams knew exactly what they were doing. They understood the real meat of the story wasn’t the death itself, but other characters’ reactions to a world that no longer had Superman in it. The Funeral for a Friend arc, followed by Reign of the Supermen, defined Superman through his absence, demonstrating just how irreplaceable and inspirational the character can be. And this was during a time when characters like the Punisher and Spawn were gaining in popularity, so taking time to reflect on what makes the original superhero super was indeed warranted. (It still is.)

Superman #76 occurs in the middle of the funeral storyline, shortly after the funeral itself. The Justice League honors Superman’s memory by carrying on one of his Christmas traditions—reading letters written to Superman seeking his aid, and helping as many of these people as they can, even though not a single plea involves pounding a super-villain into submission.

Meanwhile, the only civilians who know Superman’s identity—the Kents, Lois Lane, and Lana Lang—share their grief and discuss whether to reveal Clark’s secret. Jimmy Olsen bonds with a teenager who was saved by Superman during that final battle and is experiencing survivor’s guilt. Attention-seekers try to capitalize on the national mourning. And nefarious scoundrels steal Superman’s body (had to be something comic booky in there).

It’s a shame most people stopped reading after Superman and Doomsday punched each other out.

Writer/Penciler: Dan Jurgens

Inker: Brett Breeding

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in World Without a Superman (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Power Man and Iron Fist #1-4 (2016)

power_man_and_iron_fist_1I initially overlooked this series. Judging from the first storyline, that was a mistake.

Power Man and Iron Fist manages to be consistently amusing while maintaining a strong heart at its core. Ultimately, it’s a series about friendship—that of the two title characters, and that of the two antagonists, one of which also happens to be a longtime friend and colleague of Luke Cage and Danny Rand.

The dynamic between Luke and Danny is as great as you’d expect for two characters with a lengthy history. Danny wants to renew their old partnership. Luke does not. Jessica Jones especially does not (she and Luke have been married for some time in the comics; here, she’s just a recurring cameo, but even her brief appearances are always welcome). Also great is how the heroes’ error in judgment sets the plot into motion.

I hadn’t realized that Mariah Dillard, Alfre Woodard’s character on the Luke Cage Netflix series, had a comic book counterpart, one who apparently answers to the name “Black Mariah” (yeah, that sounds a bit dated). The two versions of the character have practically nothing in common, other than both being criminals. Still, the comic book version works well in this medium and this story (nickname aside).

I’ll be sure to check out #5 when it hits Marvel Unlimited.

Writer: David Walker

Artist: Sanford Greene

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: recent back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Power Man and Iron Fist vol. 1: The Boys Are Back in Town (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Supergirl #34 (1999)

supergirl_vol_4_34The problem with having two identities is sometimes they need to be on different continents at the same time.

The fun continues in Supergirl #34, which gives us not only secret-identity hijinks, but also a classic Superman villain, a cameo by some young super-whippersnappers, and major progress and a major setback for Linda’s professional life.

The issue kicks off on a creepy note, as a trail of desiccated rats leads law enforcement to the voracious Parasite, and then it’s on to art. Linda’s sculptures are debuting in a Parisian venue, which gives us a welcome reminder that Linda isn’t just a vessel for Supergirl—she’s got her own goals and interests that have nothing to do with superheroing. Unfortunately, however, Supergirl is also scheduled to give a speech in the U.S. at the same time. Hijinks ensue, along with the Parasite.

This particular incarnation of the Parasite serves as a nice counterbalance to this particular incarnation of Supergirl, as he also has absorbed someone else’s consciousness into his own. Between the two of them, they’re enough people to form a club.

Fun times indeed. I’m still enjoying rereading this series, though I certainly would not recommend starting in the middle.

Writer: Peter David

Penciler: Leonard Kirk

Inker: Robin Riggs

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up

More than halfway!

Back in May, I decided it would be a swell idea to review one comic book a day for a year. Earlier this month, I hit the halfway point, and I somehow haven’t given up on it.

For those of you just tuning in, I’m writing only positive reviews to highlight the good stuff. (There’s enough negativity elsewhere.) I think of it as a lengthy thank-you to an industry that has provided me with countless hours of enjoyment since I was eight years old. Some books I’ve read many times over the years, some I’m reading for the first time, and some I hadn’t read in well over a decade.

It’s not a “best of” list. The books appear in no particular order, and I’ll end up excluding many great ones. It’s just whatever I happen to be reading or whatever old favorite I feel like sharing that particular day. Usually I’ll focus on just one issue, but occasionally I’ll highlight a full storyline or miniseries all at once. There really is no grand plan at work here. You never know quite what to expect as you check in each day…and I usually don’t either.

Maybe you’ll find some good recommendations to try out, or maybe you’ll just be reminiscing along with me. Perhaps a bit of both. Any which way, I hope you enjoy.

And I apologize for the very unpolished prose. The pace leaves little time for revision, and I am still hard at work on my novel, Terrific, in which I’ll contribute my own superheroes to the literary world. (That will be polished.)

That book is coming. In the meantime, check out the many excellent comics I’ve highlighted.

Today’s Super Comics — Daredevil #183-184 (1982)

daredevil_vol_1_183I’ve never been a Punisher fan. He’s a killer, not a hero. Maybe I could get behind him if he was on a redemption arc, kind of like how Wolverine strives to tame his inner animal and be a better man. But no, the Punisher strikes me as simply an unhinged murderer who thinks he’s doing the right thing…which makes him a great antagonist for vigilantes who are actually heroic, such as Daredevil.

Daredevil and Punisher come into conflict in Daredevil #183 and 184, near the end of Frank Miller’s series-redefining run. Matt Murdock’s mature ethics are on full display as he defends a criminal in court because he believes the man to be innocent of the current charges. Meanwhile, Punisher just wants to shoot up all them bad guys. And Daredevil’s not having it.

The Daredevil/Punisher conflict was the strongest part of Daredevil season two on Netflix, and these comics give us a very early version of it. It’s more streamlined in comic book form, but still greatly compelling.

Though I continue to have zero interest in a solo Punisher series.

Writers: Frank Miller and Roger McKenzie

Artists: Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller vol. 3 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Iron Man #17-18 (1969)

Iron_Man_Vol_1_17Iron Man takes on a classic sci-fi trope—the invention rising up to replace the inventor. This wouldn’t be the last time Tony Stark’s technology causes trouble, but it’s the first time it happened in an exciting story that holds up pretty well compared to its contemporaries, thanks to the exceptional writing of Archie Goodwin, one of the all-time greats of the industry.

In an earlier issue, Tony made use of a Life Model Decoy (LMD) to help preserve his secret identity, but a freak accident causes the robot to come to life…and this time, it possesses the ambition to become both Tony Stark and Iron Man in the eyes of the world. It has his exact looks, all his knowledge, and none of his heart troubles, and it easily convinces people that the real Stark is actually the imposter. And in order to get his life back, Stark has to resort to working with new villain Madame Masque.

These two issues culminate in an Iron Man vs. Iron Man battle, with Tony donning his original, less sophisticated armor to fight the tireless LMD. And the victory is not without a cost.

Goodwin puts Tony through hell, and in doing so, he gives us one of the highlights of the late ‘60s.

Writer: Archie Goodwin

Penciler: George Tuska

Inker: Johnny Craig

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Essential Iron Man vol. 3 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Astonishing Ant-Man #8 (2016)

astonishing_ant-man_vol_1_8The fun continues in The Astonishing Ant-Man #8, this time with a colorful bunch of henchmen playing poker while sharing the tips of the trade with a newbie.

Don’t work for Nazis, laugh at Spider-Man’s jokes, pay your taxes—the henchmen dispense such wisdom throughout a book that’s clearly not taking itself seriously (always a healthy approach, I’d say). But the silly humor never detracts from the central father/daughter conflict that continues to build.

The payoff will come later, but I remain interested in seeing how it plays out. And I remain impressed at how well writer Nick Spencer balances the comedy and drama. A good time all around.

Writer: Nick Spencer

Artist: Brent Schoonover

Cover: Julian Totino Tedesco

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: recent back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in The Astonishing Ant-Man vol. 2: Small-Time Criminal (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up