Today’s Super Comic — Zatanna: Everyday Magic (2003)

Zatanna gets the Vertigo treatment in this prestige format one-shot. The adult language and brief nudity neither add to nor detract from the story, but magic does tend to feel at home in the Vertigo imprint.

Everyday Magic isn’t the definitive Zatanna story, but it’s a solid, well-told one by the guy who writes the character best, Paul Dini. Between tours, Zatanna finds John Constantine in her home, and he’s nursing a curse as well as a hangover. So she has to save his, and others’, day by confronting the witch who did this to him. While Zatanna is saving his life, Constantine bonds with her new romantic fling, much to her dismay.

It’s a quick, light read, but it’s fun and shows how wonderfully she works as a lead character. She’s always at the edge of this very dark, magical world, but she remains sunny in the face of it. And she keeps trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life, no matter how futile that is. Every page, she exudes charisma.

Constantine may have been the one who got his own TV show, but here, Zatanna is his hero.

Also, an imaginary talking rabbit narrates Zatanna’s backstory. I would include that in the “plus” column.

Writer: Paul Dini

Artist: Rick Mays

Cover: Brian Bolland

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — Sandman Mystery Theatre #20 (1994)

Comics have a different kind of “will they/won’t they?” – will the hero’s significant other learn his/her secret identity?

In Sandman Mystery Theatre, that scenario is performed by Wesley Dodds (the Sandman) and Dian Belmont. It’s a fitting venue for secret-identity tension, since it is a mystery series and all, but what’s especially great is that it’s two-sided. Wesley is grappling with whether to tell her, but Dian is piecing together clues on her own. Both characters demonstrate independent agency.

Of course, that’s an ongoing subplot that gains momentum in #20. The main plot, naturally, involves a murderer the Sandman must defeat. But the relationship between the two main characters is the series’ true selling point in the issues I’ve read. A masked mystery man isn’t enough—we need to know the man behind the mask. And a love interest isn’t enough either—we need to get to know her as her own person, too.

So apparently, if you take 1930s pulp mystery and inject a strong dosage of characterization, you get something incredibly compelling. What a shocker.

Writers: Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle

Artist: Guy Davis

Cover: Gavin Wilson and Richard Bruning

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Sandman Mystery Theatre (Book 4): The Scorpion (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comics — Sandman #41-49 (1992-93)

Ironically, the most linear Sandman story arc is the one that co-stars Delirium. It’s also my favorite.

Among his many strokes of brilliance in Sandman, writer Neil Gaiman not only created a personification of dreams, but he also gave that character a family in grand mythological fashion. The Endless comprises seven siblings: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (formerly Delight). Each has a distinct, vibrant personality, and the interplay between them is always fascinating.

The family dynamic comes into play in “Brief Lives” in issues #41-49, in which Delirium recruits Dream to search for long-lost Destruction. It’s a classic quest plot starring two totally opposite personalities. But a simpler structure doesn’t mean less depth—each issue remains intelligent, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

If you haven’t read Sandman in its entirety yet…why not? Your only excuse is if you’re under 18. In that case, yeah, wait a bit.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Penciler: Jill Thompson

Inkers: Vince Locke and Dick Giordano

Cover: Dave McKean

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Sandman vol. 7: Brief Lives (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — Sandman Mystery Theatre #1 (1993)

Correcting another oversight of mine…I had never read Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre, but I just picked up a few of the early issues to sample it. Judging by #1, I might have to pick up a lot more.

This is a Vertigo series from the heyday of the imprint, so keep the kids away. But for adults, the first issue gets us off to a compelling start. Set in 1938 New York City, the book stars the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds, early in his crimefighting career. (No relation whatsoever to the Neil Gaiman version.)

The book predates the advent of DC’s superheroes, so a mystery man with a gas mask and strange sleeping-gas gun rates as highly bizarre and downright creepy in the context of this world. However, we see only a little of the Sandman in action and spend far more time with Wes Dodds as he meets his future wife, Dian Belmont, for the first time at a benefit function. Dian isn’t just a romantic interest, though—Wagner writes her as co-lead.

We get a sense of Wesley as a driven, sober man and Dian as a lively, curious woman. They already display some initial chemistry and stand on their own as distinct characters. Wagner takes his time introducing them, giving them time to breathe while still making sure important developments happen in the issue.

The plot of this initial arc involves a criminal named Tarantula who kidnaps a friend of Dian’s, and this will inevitably put her on a path to meet Wes’s other identity.

I’ll have to read more.

Writer: Matt Wagner

Artist: Guy Davis

Cover: Gavin Wilson

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Sandman Mystery Theatre Book One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comics — Death: The High Cost of Living #1-3 (1993)

death_the_high_cost_of_living_vol_1_1Neil Gaiman does Death Takes a Holiday in his distinctive Neil Gaimany way.

Death, or Didi, is an off-kilter teenaged girl who gets to be mortal one day a century. She befriends a depressed young guy with the unfortunate name of Sexton. A very old madwoman seeks Death’s help in finding her heart. And a blind, creepy guy wants Death’s sigil.

And by the end, it’s all remarkably uplifting.

“It always ends. That’s what gives it value.”

Though this is a Sandman spinoff, Death: The High Cost of Living stands entirely on its own. I can’t say for certain, but it might even be more effective without prior knowledge. There’s almost nothing in these three issues that’s blatantly supernatural. The fantasy elements exist entirely on the periphery, which you hardly even realize until after the fact because everything feels so magical. If you read just this story, you might almost believe that Didi is merely a troubled girl who has retreated into the delusion that she’s Death.

An excellent read from the early days of DC’s Vertigo imprint.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Artists: Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham

Cover: Dave McKean

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Death: The High Cost of Living (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — The Sandman #8 (1989)

sandman-8There are lots of ways for a character to make a great first impression on me. One foolproof way is by referencing Mary Poppins.

And that’s how we meet The Sandman’s personification of death. In Neil Gaiman’s world, Death appears as a lively teenaged girl, and she’s the older sister of the series’ protagonist, Dream. No Grim Reaper clichés here.

Death debuts in #8, which is when the series truly started becoming amazing. Dream has just completed a quest that defined the series’ opening arc, and now he’s feeling adrift and purposeless. So his sister comes along to check on him, and he tags along as she goes about her routine of guiding the newly deceased into the afterlife, reminding Dream of his own responsibilities. Gaimain makes the right call in not showing us Death’s realm; instead, we just see her kindness and tact as she greets diverse people who are all about to embark on the same journey.

It’s an excellent issue that stands on its own while also promising the greatness to come throughout the rest of the series…and the also-excellent Death spinoff miniseries.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Artist: Mike Dringenberg

Inker: Malcolm Jones III

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in The Sandman vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — Human Target #1 (2003)

Human Target 1In the category of “I forgot I had this” …

The Human Target is a high-concept character that’s been around since the ‘70s. Christopher Chance is an exceptionally talented man who impersonates his endangered clients to serve as their decoys. A master-of-disguise, man-of-many-faces sort of thing, but with a strong action bent. And his talents truly are talents, not superpowers. It’s a great concept for either comics or television, and it’s been used in both mediums.

The concept proved to be an excellent fit for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, the company’s R-rated line that tends to focus on more mature themes. Writer Peter Milligan re-envisioned the character as a man who’s losing his own sense of identity as his job constantly requires him to become someone else, and it’s a fascinating approach that adds existential depth to the action and intrigue.

After a couple of miniseries, DC/Vertigo promoted Milligan’s Human Target to an ongoing series, and its first issue works wonderfully as a pilot. It’s accessible in the sense that the reader requires no expository recap to get into the story, but it wisely withholds information about what’s going on, allowing the issue to build to a twisty finale that sets the tone for the series.

Very intelligently handled, and still worth a look over a decade later.

Writer: Peter Milligan

Artist: Javier Pulido

Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Human Target vol. 1: Strike Zones (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — The Sandman #31 (1991)

Sandman 31Neil Gaiman’s Sandman featured many excellent short stories throughout its run, and those single-issue stories tended to be even more interesting when they featured historical characters…such as the Emperor of the United States in #31.

Yes, a San Francisco man, Joshua Norton, actually did proclaim himself the first U.S. emperor in the 19th century, and people humored him and played along without letting him have any real authority. He’s the perfect subject for a Sandman guest star. Gaiman chose well indeed, and he uses Norton’s story to show how dreams can defeat despair—even dreams that are completely bonkers.

And of course, with this being Sandman, dreams and despair are Dream and Despair, two of the Endless. Their siblings, Delirium and Desire, also try to claim Norton, but Dream’s inspiration gives the troubled man a way to get through life without hurting himself or anyone else. Rather, Norton becomes an eccentric public figure who, however inadvertently, delights the residents and visitors of San Francisco. He may not be contributing to society in quite the way he intends—not even close, really—but he contributes. And the right dream allows him to do that.

An utterly fascinating story that will make you want to do a Google search immediately afterward.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Penciler: Shawn McManus

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in The Sandman vol. 6: Fables & Reflections (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY