Today’s Super Comics — Zero Hour #4-0 (1994)

zero-hour-4Zero Hour was the first company-wide crossover event I read, and the scope was suitably epic.

The superheroes of the DC Universe need to band together to save time itself, which is rapidly unraveling, creating all sorts of mysterious (and entertaining) anomalies. A young Batgirl in her prime appears in Gotham. People randomly disappear as their timelines are wiped out. The elder statesmen of the Justice Society of America stage a heroic last stand.

And at the center of it all is a classic DC superhero gone rogue. (Spoilers ahead, since I can’t really discuss this one without revealing the big bad.)

The most amazing part for me, when I read this at the age of 11, was the reveal of the villain. In the final pages of the penultimate issue, a green glowing fist clocks Superman, knocking him out cold, and then we see Hal Jordan, the definitive Green Lantern since the 1959, standing over him, taking credit for orchestrating this whole crisis in time.

It blew my young mind—the idea of a hero of this stature being the bad guy. And Green Lantern, now calling himself Parallax, is utterly convinced he’s in the right, which is an important ingredient in any great villain. He’s fixing time and removing all the mistakes. Basically, he’s playing God to bring about a utopian vision. And that never goes well.

It’s no work of literature, but it thrilled me back in the day. It lacks a central protagonist, but lots of great characters have their moments, especially Green Arrow in the final faceoff against his old friend. The Flash also gets a big heroic moment early in the series.

By the way, the numbering for this miniseries goes backward. So the first issue is #4, second is #3, and so on. It’s a countdown to the end of time. Happy New Year’s Eve.

Writer/Penciler: Dan Jurgens

Inker: Jerry Ordway

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Zero Hour: Crisis in Time (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Batman #17 (2013)

batman_vol_2_17Batman’s “Death of the Family” story arc is one of the most disturbing Joker stories I’ve read. It’s also one of the richest psychologically.

Writer Scott Snyder drills into the heads of Batman and the Joker, amazingly giving a fresh spin to an antagonistic relationship that’s been going on for over seventy years. On the surface, it’s creepy as hell and far too nightmarish for children to read, but lots of careful thought clearly went into the narrative. The payoff in issue #17 is brilliant. Once you get past the grotesqueries, you find an intelligent comic hiding within.

It really shows just how versatile these characters are. They fit a seemingly endless variety of stories.

But keep the kiddies away from this one!

Writer: Scott Snyder

Penciler: Greg Capullo

Inker: Jonathan Glapion

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Batman vol. 3: Death of the Family (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 15 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Starman #37 (1997)

starman_vol_2_37Starman had an annual tradition. Once a year, Jack Knight would spend an issue chatting with his deceased brother, David, in a dreamlike realm that may or may not have been an actual dream. Each occurrence was titled “Talking with David, [year].”

Pretty much the entire issue would be rendered in black and white except for David in the classic Starman costume, which received full-color treatment. These talks were a clever way to chart Jack’s growth as a superhero and a man by taking a dialogue-oriented break from the action.

The best iteration I’ve read so far is in issue #37, in which the brothers share a meal with the deceased members of the Justice Society of America, including Hourman, Dr. Mid-Nite, the original Black Canary, and others. These first-generation superheroes take turns sharing their wisdom with Jack, while D-list Golden Age hero Red Bee provides some tension with his inexplicably rude behavior…which winds up tying into his own bit of wisdom.

As a special treat, the final page eschews the black-and-white motif with a full-color painted splash page, capping the issue with a suitably vintage look.

Writer: James Robinson

Artist: Tony Harris

Inker: Wade Von Grawbadger

Cover: Tony Harris

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Starman Omnibus vol. 3 (HC)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Vision #12 (2016)

vision-12Among what I’ve read, The Vision is the best comic book series of 2016, and it absolutely sticks the landing in its final issue, #12.

Similar to what he did with Omega Men, writer Tom King creates a complete story over the course of 12 issues. You can read from #1 through #12 and feel totally satisfied (though he does leave room for sequels). Then you can reread and admire the details and careful thought that went into the plotting and characters, who all come alive with greater depth than the typical comic affords. The main difference between the two series, however, is that Vision makes ample use of previous continuity to enrich the story…and it manages to do so without ever becoming inaccessible.

The series marks a true evolution for its protagonist, both in terms of the character himself (itself?) and the dramatic possibilities of his artificial existence.

At its core, it’s a series about the Vision wanting more in life. While things certainly don’t go as planned, the Avengers’ artificial member has never looked more like a three-dimensional human being…albeit an incredibly odd one.

Read it all from #1.

Writer: Tom King

Artist: Gabriel Hernandez Walta

Cover: Michael Del Mundo

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: recent back issues; Comixology; included in The Vision vol. 2: Little Better Than a Beast (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — All-New X-Men #40 (2015)

all-new_x-men_vol_1_40Late in the original run of ­All-New X-Men, we get a quiet, talky issue, which provides a good opportunity to check in with how extended time-displacement is affecting some of the teenaged original X-Men trapped in the present. The experience is changing some of them, and others are trying to change as a result of what they’ve learned about their futures.

A good chunk of issue #40 focuses on Iceman during a revelatory heart-to-heart with Jean Grey, and also on Angel as he shares a moment with X-23, the young female Wolverine clone. The issue comes after a big cosmic storyline, so pacing-wise, it’s an excellent way to bring us back down to Earth.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis also works in several comedic beats that keep everything fun, while artist Mahmud Asrar deftly handles the shifting facial expressions—which is essential in making a talking-heads issue work in a visual medium.

Remarkably, this time-travel premise was not running out of gas 40 issues in.

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis

Artist: Mahmud Asrar

Cover: Andrea Sorrentino and Marcelo Maiolo

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in All-New X-Men vol. 7: The Utopians (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Captain America #21 (2006)

captain_america_vol_5_21There’s a lot going on here, all of it fun.

For the first time since World War II, Captain America and Bucky team up to take down a giant robot! And it’s just like the old days, aside from Bucky being the Winter Soldier, of course.

London superheroes Spitfire and Union Jack guest star and clobber a new Master Man (always good to clobber Nazis). Agent 13 (Sharon Carter) takes on Crossbones and Sin (the Red Skull’s daughter). And though his body his dead, the Red Skull shares a brain with an evil Russian, and somehow a non-corporeal Skull is far creepier than a corporeal one.

Issue #21 is a big action fest, though it builds on what’s come before, maintains ongoing story arcs, and continues to set up future threads. And during it all, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting successfully balance classic comic book fun with a modern tone.

An enjoyable time all around.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Artist: Steve Epting

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Captain America: Red Menace (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Starman #27 (1997)

starman_vol_2_27Well, this was good timing. My read-through of Starman happened to coincide with a Christmas issue just in time for the holiday.

Admittedly, #27 isn’t one of the best issues so far (the quality has been consistently high to the point that the competition for “best” is fierce indeed, so that’s hardly a dig). But it’s a solid Christmas issue that shows us quiet moments with the ever-evolving cast, and it ends on a heartwarming note.

The plot is highly suitable for the holidays: Jack encounters a sad, homeless Santa Claus and helps him reclaim a lost memento, even though doing so makes him late for Christmas dinner with family and friends. He gets to be the selfless superhero in a smaller way than usual—the fate of the city is not at stake, but Jack’s help means the world to this man who’s hit hard times.

Impressively, writer James Robinson gives the homeless man quite a bit of development for a single issue, elevating the character beyond any cliches.

So basically, the book does exactly what a Christmas issue should, making it a great read this time of year.

Writer: James Robinson

Artist: Steve Yeowell

Inker: Wade Von Grawbadger

Cover: Tony Harris

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Starman Omnibus vol. 2 (HC)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Hawkeye #6 (2012)

hawkeye_vol_4_6As I’ve said before, the entire Hawkeye series by Matt Fraction is excellent. But the holiday-themed issue is #6, so that seems like a timely place to focus right now.

The story shows us six December days in Hawkeye’s life…out of order. The reader, then, must piece everything together along the way, kind of like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a book that respects your intelligence enough to ask you to pay attention. Then you read it again and admire the subtleties and subtext.

Appropriately for a holiday issue, the theme is home. Specifically, Clint has recently moved into an apartment—he’s even bought the whole building—and he needs to embrace his new home and resist his usual impulse to run away to the next thing. There’s also the faintest whiff of It’s a Wonderful Life, as Clint learns about his own value, too.

“I know it’s a mess and it’s half-taped together and it’s old and busted—but it’s mine. And you gotta make that work, right? You gotta make your own stuff work,” Clint says late in the chronology but early in book, before we know exactly what he’s talking about.

David Aja’s art is terrific throughout. He’s a master of incorporating tiny panels into his layouts, which I imagine must be a significant challenge for any comic book artist. However, the most memorable image is a full-page splash panel of Hawkeye getting ready to defend his home. Clint appears small in the lower foreground, and a fairly bland apartment building consumes most of the page, with only snow breaking it up. It’s a wonderful image that encapsulates what the issue is all about.

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artist: David Aja

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Hawkeye vol. 2: Little Hits (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 15 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Starman #21 (1996)

starman_vol_2_21Sandman’s “Sand and Stars” storyline gives us a team-up with thematic weight, as the new Starman meets the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds.

This Sandman has nothing to do with the Neil Gaiman lord of dreams version. Dodds was just a detective with a sleeping-gas gun and gasmask—he’s a character who straddled the line between the masked mystery men of the 1930s and the early superheroes of the 1940s. As a member of the Justice Society of America, he worked with the original Starman, Ted Knight, the father of this series’ Starman.

The elderly Sandman is an excellent choice for a team-up with Jack Knight, who also doesn’t fit the mold of a typical superhero. (One point of common ground: They both eschew the standard cape-and-tights look.) By this point, Jack’s affinity for old things is well established, and here’s one of the very first superheroes—though Jack is more excited to meet Dodds’s wife, acclaimed author Dian Belmont. Nevertheless, Dodds serves as someone from Ted Knight’s past that Jack can genuinely admire and connect with.

The entire four-part storyline is excellent, and the inclusion of an airship is an appropriately retro touch. But the second part, in issue #21, highlights an interesting character element—Jack’s fear of growing old, a reminder of which is staring him in the face when he’s with the octogenarian Dodds. Jack’s father should already be that old, though comic book mechanics have delayed that…but it’s coming. And later, if he survives all the criminals, super-villains, and death rays, old age will eventually come for Jack, too:

“…I must one day face the old man who will look out from the mirror. And I hope, at least, that old man has a young heart.”

It’s a mature fear for a superhero, and one anyone over 30 can relate to.

Writer: James Robinson

Artist: Tony Harris

Inker: Wade Von Grawbadger

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Starman Omnibus vol. 2 (HC)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Detective Comics #826 (2007)

detective_comics_826This is a nice Christmas comic…kind of like how Die Hard is a nice Christmas movie. So maybe it’s not “nice” exactly, but the holiday season provides a backdrop to gripping tension and action.

During a moment of desperation, Robin (Tim Drake) makes the mistake of getting into a stranger’s car. Turns out, the Joker is at the wheel. (And that’s why you don’t get into strangers’ cars!)

Joker ties up the Boy Wonder in the passenger’s seat and makes him watch helplessly as he runs over random pedestrians. And whenever he gets bored killing innocents, the Joker will probably kill Robin, too. It’s a death trap with psychological torture thrown in.

This is one of those done-in-one short stories writer Paul Dini excels at, particularly when it comes to Batman’s world. The Joker is at his most terrifying, and Robin needs to be at his most resourceful…which will require him to maintain his calm in the face of horrific murders.

It probably won’t get you into the Christmas spirit, but it is a great comic.

Writer: Paul Dini

Penciler: Don Kramer

Inker: Wayne Faucher

Cover: Simone Bianchi

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Batman: Detective (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up