Today’s Super Comic — Excalibur #85 (1995)

Ah, the good old days when you could slap Wolverine on a cover and sell more comics, regardless of how little he was actually in the issue.

In the case of Excalibur #85, Wolverine appears only in flashback to dispense advice to the true star of the issue—Kitty Pryde, a.k.a. Shadowcat.

Two magicians want to kill her on account of a magical sword that belonged to Kitty’s late best friend, Illyana (Magick of the New Mutants). The Soulsword is presently bonded to Kitty, making her a target. (What better plot device for a book named “Excalibur” than a magical sword?) One of those crazy magicians has possessed Nightcrawler, and the rest of the team is out of commission. So Kitty has to outwit and outfight a madman who’s wearing the body of one of her closest friends.

The battle shows how far she’s come since her early days as the X-Men’s annoying teen sidekick. In the present, out of all the many X-related characters that have accumulated over the years, Kitty stands out as one of the best…thanks in part to the growing up she did in the pages of Excalibur.

Some time abroad is good for the soul, I suppose.

Writer: Warren Ellis

Penciler: Ken Lashley

Inker: Tom Wegrzyn

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Excalibur Visionaries – Warren Ellis, vol. 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Black Widow #1 (2004)

Almost twenty years ago now, Marvel launched an imprint for comics with a hard PG-13 rating that allowed their creators to think outside the box. It was called Marvel Knights, and it facilitated some good stories aimed at an older readership without crossing the line into excessive profanity and the like (that happened in MAX, which started a few years later).

The Black Widow was an excellent choice for a Marvel Knights series, as the first issue of her 2004 miniseries demonstrates.

She’s definitely operating outside normal Avengers parameters here (I think she was between Avenging stints at this point). She’s not above killing to defend herself or others, which normally I’m against, but it fits her character and her checkered background.

Issue #1 sets up a situation where Natasha’s past is coming back to haunt her, which seems to be a pretty standard type of plot for her…but again, it suits the character. And it’s nice to see that even when she’s on the run, she’s willing to leap into action to save an innocent when she could just as easily walk away.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may not know how to give Black Widow her own movie, but comic books have already proven she can carry a story. For Widow fans, this one’s worth a look (just not the younger Widow fans).

Writer: Richard K. Morgan

Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz

Cover: Greg Land

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Black Widow: Homecoming (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 15 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Catwoman #1 (2002)

Here’s a time it actually made sense to start over with a new issue #1. When writer Ed Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke (both incredible talents) took over Catwoman, they injected a mature tone into the book and set Selina Kyle on a fresh course.

She’s been presumed dead for the past six months, so now it’s time to figure out what to do with her life. She laments how self-serving she had become, but she’s not quite sure what that makes her at present. As she observes Batman in action against the Riddler, she realizes how she doesn’t belong in his world of good against evil; her territory is “between right and wrong.”

Catwoman and Batman have a nice moment together on a rooftop, and the dialogue further sharpens their differences:

Batman: No matter what, I believe that deep down, you’re really a good person. Don’t you think so?

Catwoman: Sometimes…yeah, sometimes I do…but I think it’s just a lot more complicated than that.

(As a side note, it’s always nice when a Catwoman/Batman rooftop scene in a Catwoman #1 manages not to devolve into gratuitous sex to “shock” us or show off how “adult” it is. I try to stay positive here, but that poor decision in the New 52 series deserves the jab. So…sorry/not sorry. But as I said, Brubaker and Cooke bring a mature tone to this book.)

Catwoman, when handled properly, is a complex character. Her many shades of grey give her the potential to surpass Batman as a compelling protagonist. And this particular #1 kicks off the finest set of Catwoman comics I’ve ever read.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Artist: Darwyn Cooke

Inker: Mike Allred

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Catwoman vol. 1: Trail of the Catwoman (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Zatanna #8 (2011)

Let me again lament how short-lived Paul Dini’s Zatanna series was. But better than nothing, I suppose.

Issue #8 kicks off a new storyline that forces Zatanna to confront her childhood fear of puppets, which apparently stems from a time her father, Zatara, made a serious error in judgment and went too far in stopping a bad guy. And now that old mistake is back to haunt his daughter.

Not only does it set up a good conflict that’s both internal and external, but it also fills in details about her life, past and present—something the character had been in need of for many years. (An amusing little flashback in this issue involves a Sesame Street guest appearance gone awry.) Here, she’s portrayed as a person first, magician second.

It’s always nice to see Zatanna get to be her own character rather than just the Justice League’s resident sorceress.

Writer: Paul Dini

Artist: Cliff Chiang

Cover: Stephane Roux

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Zatanna vol. 2: Shades of the Past (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Birds of Prey #56 (2003)

The second era of Birds of Prey began in #56, when writer Gail Simone kicked off a long and consistently entertaining run on the title.

It starts with the previous status quo. Oracle (the original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, currently confined to a wheelchair) uses her extensive computer prowess to do good around the world, and Black Canary is her field agent and best friend. But this time, they’re operating in their homebase of Gotham to take down a CEO who’s planning on stealing his employees’ retirement funds. The plan is simply to scare him straight, but this would be a rather boring comic if everything went according to plan—and it’s certainly not that.

Simone hints at a new recruit for the team, one who will bring a fresh and interesting dynamic to the book.

This is just the start, and it’s a good one indeed, full of humor, ethical dilemmas, and cliffhangers.

Writer: Gail Simone

Penciler: Ed Benes

Inker: Alex Lei

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Birds of Prey vol. 1: Of Like Minds (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Captain Marvel #1 (2012)

Carol Danvers hasn’t had the smoothest history, but she’s finally in the A-list where she belongs. After her character-rehabilitation in the Ms. Marvel series from ten years ago, she was finally ready to take the name and title she should have had from the start—Captain Marvel, Earth’s Mightiest Hero.

She officially takes the name in Captain Marvel #1 (from 2012, not 2014 or 2016; I miss the days when series would go on for hundreds of issues). It’s basically a tone-setting issue, beginning with a fun romp as then–Ms. Marvel and Captain America take on the Absorbing Man, who amusingly wants to steal a moon rock in hopes it will give him moon powers. Things get a bit more serious later with the true inciting incident for the first storyline—the death of Carol’s hero from her youth (and not a superhero hero).

It’s a solid start that strikes a nice tonal balance. I thoroughly enjoy Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing style—the dialogue sounds organic, the sense of humor is strong, and there’s a focus on character. All good stuff.

Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick

Artist: Dexter Soy

Cover: Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines, Javier Rodriguez

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Captain Marvel vol. 1: In Pursuit of Flight (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Wonder Woman #4 (1987)

Like many of DC’s most prominent characters, Wonder Woman got rebooted in the late ‘80s. All previous continuity was out, except to be used as inspiration. And the architect behind this reboot was one of the all-time great comic book artists, George Perez. He plotted and drew, leaving the actual scripting to others, but he demonstrated a solid understanding of story structure.

The retelling of Wonder Woman’s origin and debut is spread out over several issues. The story takes its time, but things are constantly happening. It’s paced like a YA novel, more or less. Four issues in, and Diana still speaks barely any English (which makes sense, as she’s not exactly local). Also in #4, she fights her first monster in public view, thereby earning the Wonder Woman nickname in the press.

Decompressing the story was a wise move on Perez’s part, because this is when the character is at her most interesting. She’s an immigrant from paradise, basically, which gives her a unique perspective when seeing the rest of our flawed world for the first time. And she arrives with a clearly defined mission—stopping Ares from unleashing another world war.

Meanwhile, Col. Steve Trevor, who has made his share of internal enemies during his time in the Air Force, is framed and on the run. His and Diana’s situations begin to interlock nicely.

And this is just the middle of the story so far. The slow build suits her…as does Perez’s art, but Perez’s art suits pretty much every single superhero ever.

Writers: George Perez and Len Wein

Penciler: George Perez

Inker: Bruce D. Patterson

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Wonder Woman vol. 1: Gods and Mortals (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comics — She-Hulk #8-10 (2014)

She-Hulk has always thrived when interacting with the broader Marvel Universe, and a fairly recent story took full advantage of that shared setting to excellent effect. It also took full advantage of its protagonist’s legal acumen.

In She-Hulk #8-10 by writer Charles Soule and artist Javier Pulido, She-Hulk is hired to defend none other than Captain America himself in a wrongful-death civil lawsuit. In recent events outside this title, Cap had been aged to his true 90-some years. Even with the super-soldier serum, he doesn’t have a long life left, so naturally an old enemy would try to tarnish his legacy in his final days.

With Cap being Cap, he wants She-Hulk (or more specifically Jennifer Walters) to win the case fair and square, exploiting not a single legal loophole. No technicalities allowed. He wants a righteous win, not an easy one. So he asks Matt Murdock (Daredevil) to represent the plaintiffs to the absolute best of his ability, pulling no punches.

So Jen’s got to be at her lawyerly best to save Captain America’s legacy. There’s hardly any superhero action in sight. This is pure legal drama with Marvel flourishes (and nice bits of comedy, too). For all her incredible strength, Jen needs to be clever more than anything else as Marvel’s preeminent attorneys clash in court.

And if that’s not enough, the story also includes Patsy Walker (Hellcat) and, quite randomly, an eccentric duplicate of Madrox the Multiple Man.

The Marvel Universe is a bustling place indeed, and She-Hulk is right at home in the thick of it.

Writer: Charles Soule

Artist: Javier Pulido

Cover: Kevin P. Wada

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in She-Hulk vol. 2: Disorderly Conduct (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Spider-Woman #1 (1978)

Spider-Woman is not in any way a Spider-Man rip-off. Marvel basically took the idea of a spider-powered superhero, spun it around, and shot it off on a tangent, resulting in few similarities beyond wall-crawling and the word “spider” in the name.

But among those few similarities…Jessica Drew, like Peter Parker, does not start off heroically at all. We meet her as she’s contemplating robbing a food store because money is so tight. She doesn’t go through with it, of course, but she’s clearly not thinking about the greater good.

And while people tended to distrust Spider-Man, particularly in those early issues, they’re utterly repulsed by Spider-Woman, even when she’s in her civilian identity. It has nothing to do with angry newspaper editorials, though. With her, it’s chemical. Despite that she’s a beautiful woman, they instinctively distrust her, feel she’s odd. The spider-blood coursing through her veins sets off their alarm bells, and they don’t know why. They don’t like spiders; they don’t like her.

It’s an interesting approach, and one very much in the mighty Marvel tradition of hard-luck heroes. It’s also appropriate—back in the 1960s, Marvel’s publisher initially rejected the idea of Spider-Man because he believed people found spiders far too repulsive to want to read about a spider-based character.

Spider-Woman is not yet a full-fledged superhero by the end of #1, but the seeds are planted. There’s clearly a good person within trying to find her way out. Definitely more dramatically interesting than having a ready-made hero.

Writer: Marv Wolfman

Penciler: Carmine Infantino

Inker: Tony Dezuniga

Cover: Joe Sinnott

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Essential Spider-Woman vol. 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Batgirl: Year One #1 (2003)

Batgirl: Year One is a fantastic miniseries from beginning to end…but I only had time to reread the first issue, so we’ll focus on that.

There have been a few different Batgirls over the years, but this book focuses on the original, Barbara Gordon, as she’s just starting out.

The issue jumps around in time a bit, kicking off with Barbara in her first outing as Batgirl against D-list costumed criminal Killer Moth, in a sort of “How did we get here?” set-up. Then we rewind to not long before that, where we’re reintroduced to Barbara as a young woman who wants to be a cop. Unfortunately, her father rejects her ambition outright, and being as he’s the police commissioner and all, he kind of has some say in the matter.

But Barbara isn’t one to let others tell her what to do with her life. So she hatches a plan to reach out to her hero. And no, it’s not Batman—it’s the Black Canary, in a nice nod to their future friendship in Birds of Prey.

Barbara makes a compelling protagonist and an excellent role model for younger readers. She’s intelligent, resourceful, brave, determined, and willing to put in the hard work. And, for the most part, she’s so positive. No angst-ridden darkness to be found here.

Writers: Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon

Penciler: Marcos Martin

Inker: Alvaro Lopez

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Batgirl: Year One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up